Egyptian Doctors and Freedom of Information

Egyptian doctors on strike. (Photo: Mai Shaheen/Ahram Online)

With all that is going on in Egypt these days, it is hard to take our eyes off of the Constitutional Assembly and the constitution drafting process. Yet if you look around the country, you will begin to see that the members of the constituent assembly are not the only ones mobilizing to secure support for broad-based reforms in the country. Last month, Egyptian doctors began to protest to demand better pay and working conditions.

Doctors have been on a partial strike since October 1 to demand an increase in health spending to 15 percent of the state budget, wage increases, and better healthcare standards and security at hospitals. A salary for a recently graduated doctor is 200 Egyptian pounds ($32.70) a month. But low pay is not the only thing new doctors have to worry about. Recently, there were two separate incidents where assailants attacked hospitals in Shubra (Cairo), and in the Al-Qantara Sharq (governorate of Isamaila).

The problems that plague the healthcare industry are endemic to the public sector as a whole, where public sector employees are paid very low salaries compared to other industries. With the dire state of the economy, it will be difficult for the Morsi Administration to raise salaries for doctors and other public sector employees without significant cuts in other areas. So where should the money come from? In the long run, the only solution will be to fix the underlying issues of corruption and bad governance.

As with many industries in Egypt, the healthcare industry suffers from inefficiencies, corruption, and poor governance. These problems trickle down to doctors in the form of low pay and bad working conditions, as well as to patients, who suffer due to inaccurate and untimely information on their health. So what should the government do about it? One key area where reforms can be made that may alleviate some of the burdens of bureaucracy on the industry is the adoption of a Freedom of Information Law.

A Freedom of Information law would benefit many industries, but especially healthcare. Allowing a patient to receive accurate and timely information on his or her health should be a benchmark on any reforms made to the industry. The flow of information on how the healthcare system is run is also critical for enforcing accountability, mitigating vulnerability to corruption, eliminating resource duplication, reducing waste, and achieving maximum utilization of core competencies. A Freedom of Information Law should complement broader changes made to the healthcare industry, including the formulation of guidelines for good governance and transparency that incorporate broad-based participation from stakeholders as well as best practices from other countries’ healthcare systems to ensure comprehensive, yet applicable guidelines.

Recently, the United Group, with the help of CIPE, has submitted a proposed draft freedom of information law that would expand on the right for the public to access information and would set up mechanisms that enable and ensure that citizens are able to exercise their rights. This is a good first step. Hopefully, after the constitution drafting process is over and new members of the Parliament are elected into office this proposed law will be one of the first that they deliberate on.

The resulting free flow of information would benefit many more sectors of society than just the healthcare system. Educating civil society on its rights to receive proper information will strengthen the principles of public participation and involve for a better representation of stakeholders to advocate for reforms, which are needed in many industries and government services.