SLMC’s accusations against SAITM ‘misplaced’ — Dr. Neville Fernando

‘We are trying to give a future to hundreds of students’


Dr. Neville Fernando

by Suresh Perera

The South Asian Institute of Technology & Medicine (SAITM) has come under flak from the Sri Lanka Medical Council (SLMC), which insists the controversial private medical faculty’s MBBS degree should not be recognized due to its "faulty approval process", but the fee-levying facility’s boss dismissed the accusation as "misplaced".

 "They should come to terms with what is happening on the ground before passing strictures on a medical faculty that’s trying to give a future to hundreds of students", says Dr. Neville Fernando, SAITM’s President and Chairman.

"It is not my contention that everything here is hunky-dory. We are facing grave issues and our attempts to resolve them and move forward are being deliberately obstructed", he asserted in an interview with The Sunday Island at his office in the sprawling institute complex at Malabe.

The situation that has emerged and the related developments should be viewed in their correct perspective, the former parliamentarian emphasized. "It is unfair to accuse SAITM of inadequate in-house facilities without talking of the impediments placed in our path".

Q: The SLMC says that SAITM has a ‘faulty approval process’ and ‘clinical trials conducted are insufficient’?

Chairman Fernando: That’s true. We know about it.  Our students filed a Fundamental Rights (FR) plea in the Supreme Court against the then Health Minister (the incumbent President) seeking the use of government hospitals, JMO offices and community health clinics for clinical trials.

The minister agreed, but the presidential poll came up in January 2015 and Maithripala Sirisena quit to contest as a candidate. As a result, the agreement reached before the Supreme Court was not implemented.

Q: The SLMC report also refers to the inadequacy of a "mix of patients" due to insufficient admissions to the Neville Fernando Teaching Hospital (NFTH)?

That’s also true. In 2012, I signed a MOU with the Homagama, Thalangama and Avissawella hospitals to be used by our students for clinical trials, but the GMOA threatened to launch an island-wide strike. I thought of the poor patients who will have to suffer in case of a strike and didn’t send our students.

It was at that point I decided to build our own hospital at a cost of Rs. 2 billion, which is one of the best in Sri Lanka. A government hospital has a bigger mix of patients, which is not so in our case.

Q: If your hospital is one of the best, as you claim, how come bed occupancy is not up to expectations? 

The bed occupancy rate is low because it is a fee-levying private hospital. Though our medical charges are minimal and we are not looking at hefty margins, patients are reluctant to come here because, unlike a government medical facility, there are charges involved. We should get over that barrier and adopt methods to increase the number of patients. 

I have told the consultants that they can admit a certain number of patients for free medical treatment so that we can get a ‘mix of patients’ through a bigger occupancy rate. The paying patients can subsidize the non-paying ones. Funds from the faculty can also be used for clinical training.

 Asked whether the SLMC’s stand that SAITM’s medical degrees should not be recognized would further complicate issues, Dr. Fernando replied: "When we receive the report on the SLMC inspection team’s findings on SAITM, we will appeal to the Minister and show him our strong points". 

Q: You mean SAITM has still not received a copy of the report, which also notes that the number of non-academic staff was also "surprising few"?

I have still not received it, but copies of the report have been sent to the President, Prime Minister and the media, which have no role in this. Under the Medical Ordinance, it has to be submitted only to the Health Minister.

The nine-member SLMC committee, which came here for the review, spoke to students, administrators, staff at all levels, even laborers. There is no need for minor staff because all staff members have computers and communicate via emails, eliminating the use of paper. But, in a government institution, it’s a different situation. At the Rajarata University, for example, there is more minor staff than academics.

Q: Why is the GMOA also against SAITM?

It is a combination of people. There are a few GMOA members who oppose it and in addition, people or rather agents who send students abroad. With our faculty around, they lose business. For the past six years, every time the GCE A/L results are out, there is adverse publicity on SAITM in some newspapers.

 Dr. Fernando said that in terms of the legal recognition accorded to SAITM as a "MBBS Sri Lanka degree awarding institute", all students who pass out of the private medical faculty will have to be mandatorily registered as medical practitioners. 

"There is no question of non-recognition or non-registration of our students by the SLMC as the faculty was gazetted in September 2013 by the University Grants Commission (UGC) as an institution which awards medical degrees", he elaborated. 

If there is any disinclination to recognize the MBBS degrees and register them as medical practitioners, the students can move court as it is a violation of their fundamental rights, the Chairman warned. 

SAITM was accorded degree awarding status after reviews by the UGC at the time. Initially, the faculty was given provisional recognition, but after the second visit, the approvals came as the review committee was of the view that the "facility can be considered as a degree awarding institute", Dr. Fernando observed.

 After the first gazette notification on August 30, 2011, the second followed on September 26, 2013 clearing the way for full recognition to award MBBS degrees with certain conditions to be fulfilled, he said.

 Under the Medical Ordinance Act No. 25 (Section 29) students who qualify from the University of Sri Lanka or any other degree awarding university or institute can be registered as medical practitioners, he pointed out.

 The Chairman said the student population at the faculty, which started with just 25, has grown to 800 plus since 2009. They have to remain for six years to sit for the final examination. The numbers can increase to 1,000 with the passing out of the first batch soon.

 The cost of the six-year MBBS degree at SAITM is Rs. 9.5 million. The demand for the medical qualification is growing. Parents prefer to send their children because the cost is reasonable for the whole six years in the faculty.

 Q: But, there are assertions that Bangladesh or Manipal (India) are more cost effective?

 Bangladeshi degrees are not up to the mark and are not recognized in Sri Lanka. Manipal will cost around Rs. 20 million annually. Sometimes, these students take years to get through the mandatory Act 16 in Sri Lanka for registration. SAITM students don’t have to sit for this exam as we are a degree awarding institute.

 Q: Didn’t you foresee these obstacles when you embarked on this medical faculty project?

 I didn’t know there are such nasty people. The then Higher Education Minister, Prof. Viswa Warnapala told me how only about 20,000 students, amongst 100,000 who qualify the GCE A/L are accommodated in government universities. This means that 80,000 have to either give up higher education or find placing in foreign universities at tremendous cost.

 I had sold Asha Central Hospital for Rs. 1.6 billion and divided the money amongst my four children. I told them at the time if I came up with a project, they should help fund it. They gave me Rs. 635 million to launch SAITM. I sought a credit facility from Bank of Ceylon for the hospital project and despite pressure from various quarters, the then Chairman Dr. Gamini Wickremasinghe and D. M. Gunasekera, the GM agreed to give me the loan. They continued to fund me on the Rs. 2 billion modern project. 

I have to pay Rs. 30 million as interest per month in addition to a salary bill of Rs. 100 million. A consultant earns about Rs. 500,000 per month. The hospital is not making a profit, but just breaking even. I feel happy to come here and see hundreds of children being given a future. It is those who hate the sight of children doing well who criticize this faculty. 

A former Russian Ambassador told me that I wouldn’t have faced all these problems if I had opened a casino with my money. I am trying to be of service to my country and the future generations. Good deeds will triumph over evil. All those against SAITM will go to hell and burn. Please quote me on this — they will go to hell and burn.


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