A new social movement erupting in Mexico this summer is exposing the long-running deficiencies in the nation’s public health care system.
Led by #YoSoy17 and #YoSoy Medico 17, the movement began as a reaction to legal charges filed against 16 Guadalajara doctors for alleged medical negligence in the death of a 15-year-old patient, Roberto Gallardo, who was treated at a Mexican Social Security Institute (IMSS) hospital during 2009-2010.
Since last month, when tens of thousands of doctors and their supporters took to the streets in cities across the country in a protest against the Guadalajara prosecution, the movement has turned social media into a whistle-blowing platform.
Health care professionals are using Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to post videos and commentaries, publish damning photos and issue communiqués. The messages report widespread shortages of medicines and supplies, abusive work schedules, ill-treatment of patients, low salaries, and medical schooling problems.
The denunciation of an abandoned hospital in the state of Oaxaca, where many people have to travel hours to receive medical attention, caught the public eye. In some ways, the issues raised by #YoSoy17 are very similar to the controversies enveloping Department of Veterans Affairs’ hospitals in the United States.
A strike by more than 100 doctors this week at children’s and women’s hospitals in the state of Michoacan illustrated the grievances expressed by many members of the health care sector.
Shortages of supplies and surgical equipment were seriously hampering health care said Dr. Alejandro Aguilar, spokesman for the striking doctors. “We don’t even have gauze to treat the patients,” Aguilar said.
Movement activists have met with Mexican lawmakers in an effort to improve conditions in the public health care sector, and to discuss issues like the violence confronted by health care professionals in some regions of Mexico. The movement’s name, which means “I am Number 17,” is in solidarity with the 16 Guadalajara doctors charged in Roberto Gallardo’s death, and a twist on the #YoSoy132 movement of 2012, when Mexican pro-democracy university students stood up in support of 131 fellow students of a Mexico City university whose protest was ridiculed by then-presidential candidate Enrique Pena Nieto.
Two years later, the health care professionals’ movement has stirred an important sector of society, said movement spokesperson Dr. Carlos Moreno.
“It is awakening the lethargy in which were immersed,” Moreno said. “All that was needed was a spark to unleash a firestorm of ideas and good proposals to improve our professional life and the life of our patients.”
On June 22, #YoSoy17 flexed its muscles with simultaneous marches in at least 50 Mexican cities, including Tijuana, Mexicali, Mexico City, Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua City, Chilpancingo, Queretaro, and many others.
A sampling of the protesters placards read: “I am a doctor, not a criminal,” “For the decriminalization of the medical profession,” and “We are doctors. We are not gods or criminals.”
“It can’t be that there are no third-level public hospitals,” said Chihuahua City protester Olga Ponce. “Patients have to be transferred to Torreon or Mexico City after months.”
In the capital of Guerrero state, the issue of insecurity was on the agenda.
“Here in Chilpancingo, the doctors suffer extortion and robbery, but the places with the most insecurity are Acapulco, Iguala and Taxco,” said one marcher.
Valente Gallardo, father of the Guadalajara teen whose death precipitated the doctors’ movement, dismissed the June 22 mobilization as an attempt to pressure the legal system to let culpable physicians off the hook.
“We are hoping that their licenses get yanked, and that an order is sent to all the institutions to not contract them,” Gallardo said. “I am going to show that (doctors) did not do what they were supposed to do. We will establish a precedent.”
Like teachers, many doctors contend that they are being demonized for wide-ranging social problems and the lack of investment in public infrastructure. “Malice does not exist in the medical profession,” maintained Tijuana Doctor Fernando Lopez Nebilna. “When a doctor or nurse treats a sick person it is done with professionalism to save a life. That’s why we don’t agree with the current legal code.”
In another development this past week, the Pena Nieto administration and a union representing workers in one segment of the public health sector agreed to a salary increase of 5.5 percent as well as the hiring of 10,000 new workers to staff the ISSSTE system. In addition, 20,000 new workers will be added to the Health Secretariat. ISSSTE union leader Luis Manuel Victoria Ranfla called the agreement a needed “tank of oxygen” for the system’s patients.
According to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates, the ISSSTE system alone has a staffing under capacity of 76,000 nurses and nearly 30,000 doctors and dentists.
For more information in Spanish:
Carmen Aristegui interview with Dr. Carlos Moreno: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fLh_qV_1abg
Additional sources: El Universal, July 17, 2014. Article by Julian Sanchez. Quadtrain.com, July 14, 2014. La Jornada, July 5 and 10, 2014. Articles by Angeles Cruz Martinez. Milenio Digital, June 23, 2014. Proceso, June 22, 2014. Article by Patricia Mayorga, Antonio Heras and editorial staff.