If the medical profession in Bahrain ever needed an image makeover, now would be the time. Voted to the helm of Bahrain Medical Society in a historic election earlier this year, Maha Al Kawari speaks of her new undertaking to Simi Kamboj.
Maha Al Kawari is well apprised of the responsibility that sits on her shoulders. This soft-spoken lady from Muharraq is the first woman ever to head Bahrain Medical Society (BMS), which has witnessed a revival of sorts after the election of a new board in April this year.
Having served as a physician for over 18 years in the Kingdom, Maha is also no stranger to the damage done, both to her country and the medical fraternity in the wake of last year’s turmoil. While the dust may have settled somewhat, sectarian differences have come to the fore in almost every facet of Bahrain life.
Nowhere, perhaps, is this polarisation more explicit than amongst Bahrain’s medical professionals. Their role during last year’s unrest has been heavily contested, with various groups offering different versions of what went on at the country’s only full-service hospital, the Salmaniya Medical Complex (SMC) between February and April 2011.
“Everyone is entitled to their political beliefs, but doctors need to rise above it,” she asserts. “There’s no room for politics in the medical profession; our political views cannot affect either our ethics or our dealings with the patients.”
At many levels, the events in Bahrain, and especially at SMC, last year have shaken people’s faith in the medical profession. “In the light of what happened, we wished to see some good and capable hands steering the BMS so that the dignity of our profession can be restored,” she says. It was with this conviction that she joined the Loyalty to Profession group of physicians earlier this year to contest the BMS election. The turnout was impressive; over 670 of 860 registered members cast their ballot. It was the first time that expatriate doctors were allowed to be nominated as well.
Notably, three of the seven BMS board members are now women, a small victory for female medical practitioners in the Kingdom. However, with around 200 members choosing to stay away from the society, the BMS board has no illusions about the job at hand.
“We’re here for the sake of our profession. We want all medics to work together under the BMS banner. Discrimination has never been a part of our culture and we have to obey our code of ethics. We’re asking members who’re staying away to come back, open up their minds like mature adults and discuss any misgivings they have with us,” she says.
Weekly text messages, Twitter updates and invitations are sent out to all members for meetings and workshops, regardless of whether they attend. On whether the society might initiate any action against ‘tainted’ doctors for their role last year, Maha is circumspect. “We have to let the judicial process run its course. After that, the BMS bylaws will decide on any further course of action,” she says.
Born to serve Raised by a mother who truly believed in her daughter’s potential, Maha knew from her first day at school that she would take up the medical profession. It was no surprise to her family, when she graduated top of the class with distinction from Arabian Gulf University. Following her internship at the SMC and primary health care centres, she opted for family medicine.
“I’ve always been a people’s person. I could never view patients from a cold and scientific viewpoint only; I’ve always empathised with them as a human being. As a family physician, I could be close to the community,” she says. It is perhaps this intense involvement in her work that has given her sleepless nights at times. Every physician with a conscience will lose sleep sometime or another worrying about some of their more difficult cases, she believes.
Maha headed the Sitra Health Centre for seven years before she was promoted as regional medical officer in 2011. Since March last year, she’s been posted to the Ministry of Health’s public health division, where she’s in-charge of the non-communicable disease section. Much of her work involves rallying stakeholders to work together and raise awareness on health issues such as obesity, smoking, diabetes and hypertension within the community. As member of the GCC anti-smoking committee, she has hosted many events to highlight the dangers of smoking. The committee was behind enforcing the anti-smoking legislation, regulating sheesha smoking and devising media campaigns, as well as organising quitting treatment for tobacco addicts.
Preventive action Maha is now involved in a new project to screen government employees across Bahrain for heart diseases. “Around 30 per cent of employees in the government sector will be covered in the first year of the programme. Later on, it may be expanded to the private sector. The idea behind screening people early is to prevent complications at a later stage and reduce spending on lifestyle diseases in the primary care,” she says.
One of the most daunting challenges her ministry faces in the realm of public health involves influencing people to switch to healthier food habits. “It’s very easy to disparage junk food, but its popularity lies in convenience and economy. Health food, on the other hand, comes at a price. The healthier and more nutritious it is, the more expensive it gets, going beyond the reach for the majority of the population,” she observes. The matter cannot remain the sole domain of the health ministry, though, and the community as a whole needs to wake up to the concept of healthy eating.
“These are habits that parents need to instil in their children from the very beginning. Instead of telling children what and what not to do, parents can best teach them through their example,” she believes.
Building bridges Back at BMS, one of Maha’s top priorities now is to activate the society, which remained largely inert since it was dissolved last year. Various committees have been formed, in weekly meetings, to take charge of different projects, the foremost of which involves setting up a society website. The BMS is also working on an electronic library where member doctors will be able to access medical journals online.
Another team is working on the society’s quarterly journal, which hasn’t been published for over a year now. Meanwhile, the board continues to lobby with the government for improving the professional conditions and living standards of medical practitioners in the Kingdom.
“We’ve been seeking a change in cadre and revision in the salary structure of doctors,” she says. “We’d like the government to look into our petition for housing facilities. Besides, we need some assistance in the upgrade of our premises.”
On behalf of the medical community, the BMS is fine-tuning its response to the government in formulating a draft law on medical malpractice. Another committee on international affairs will liaise with organisations abroad, including the foreign media, to improve the society’s image on the international stage.
Maha concedes that it will take a long while to undo the damage, but she is resolved to stay the course. “We’ll keep trying to reach out to our physician friends who are staying away. We want them back with us. After all, we live in the same country; we can never remain separated,” she says.