BY Dr. Ruvaiz Haniffa
The Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP), UK is the oldest professional body for general (medical) practitioners in the UK and in the world. It is the largest medical royal college, with a membership of over 50,000. Its motto is “Cum Scientia Caritas” – Compassion with Knowledge.
The year 2021 was special for the discipline of family medicine in Sri Lanka as it gained international recognition by the RCGP, UK, choosing to honour one of Sri Lanka’s foremost contemporary general practitioners, by awarding him with one of the RCGP’s most prestigious awards – “The International President’s Medal” to Dr. A.D.P.A Wijegoonewardene, MBBS DFM FRCGP (Hon.) FCGP. The International President’s Medal of the RCGP, UK is given only occasionally for meritorious commitment and service to the development of general practice or family medicine in their country.
Dr. Wijegoonewardene – known as Dr Preethi to his generation of patients, students, colleagues, and friends – is a senior family physician in Colombo. He received the award from the Royal College of General Practitioners of UK (RCGP UK) President Prof. Amanda Howe, at their Annual General Meeting, and at a felicitation ceremony, at the RCGP Headquarters at No. 30, Euston Square, London on 19 November 2021.
This prestigious award is in recognition and appreciation of the invaluable service rendered in the field of general practice/family medicine in Sri Lanka and South Asia by Dr. Preethi Wijegoonewardene, who becomes the first Sri Lankan to receive such an award which is considered a great honour to Sri Lankan and South Asian family physicians.
Dr. Preethi has been a committed general practitioner and family physician who has rendered yeoman service to the community he serves at his practice in Colombo and its suburbs, for almost four decades. His ever grateful patient community will vouch for the fact that he is a reliable, trusted family doctor who is very dedicated and honourable, and always available to his patients at all times. His greatest skill is most definitely that of communicating with his patients. His manner, style and tone of voice is therapeutic to the patient, who is reassured even with the gloomiest of prognosis. The skill he has has been imparted on generations of undergraduate and postgraduate medical students, both local and overseas who have had the privilege to be under his tutelage.
The professionalism he embodies in his work on a daily basis for the past four decades epitomises the art and science of medicine. Watching him practice his discipline is akin to watching the finest of craftsmen or sportsmen display their mastery of their knowledge, skills and attitudes in full flow. His knowledge is up to date, his skills are that of a grand master and his attitude is one of absolute humility and humbleness. In this age of medical arrogance, a consultation with Dr. Preethi is nothing short of therapeutic. In short, Dr. Preethi is indeed the drug to many an ailment his patients suffer from. He shared his experience in medical professionalism with his colleagues by way of delivering the prestigious E.M. Wijerama Endowment Lecture of the Sri Lanka Medical Association in 2014 under the topic “Protect the values of a noble profession”. The mere fact that he chose this topic – which was highly appreciated by the public and received wide press coverage at the time – reflects his commitment to constantly and persistently remind his colleagues of the need to practice medicine with the highest ethical and professional standards.
Dr. Preethi has been long associated with the Sri Lanka Medical Association (SLMA) in various capacities as an office bearer since the late nineties and became the president of it in 2002, a rare honour for a general practitioner. At the SLMA he has shown off his talents as an actor of near professional competence through his numerous appearances with senior and junior colleagues at the annual doctors’ concert over many years. So much so that the script of these annual skits is kept a closely guarded secret and revealed to the audience only at the event. In addition to his professional and academic contribution to the SLMA, his commitment to organising social events of the SLMA has set the standard for many who have followed him.
He was elected as the president of the College of General Practitioners of Sri Lanka from 2004-2007, and he steered it with success, to be recognised as a leading GP College in South Asia. He also represented the Sri Lankan College in the World Council of WONCA (World Organisation of Family Physicians) since the late nineties and was elected the President of WONCA MESAR (the Middle East and South Asia Region) from 2007-2010 when the region was divided into two, he was elected as President WONCA South Asia.
He was awarded the honorary fellowship of the RCGP, UK in 2008 (the first Sri Lankan to receive it) and he was elected a WONCA Fellow in 2013 – the highest honour awarded to a member by WONCA (again the first Sri Lankan to receive it), in recognition of services to family medicine to South Asia and the rest of the world. He was awarded the honorary fellowship of the Bangladesh Academy of Family Physicians in 2018. He has travelled far and wide as an invited plenary speaker and orator for many international conferences in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines and participated as a guest speaker at many WHO meetings in SEARO, during his term as WONCA SA President. He was also elected as the Patron of SAPCRN (South Asia Primary Care Research Network) in 2010.
He has spoken at many fora on the “Pivotal role of the family physician in a primary healthcare team of a country” and had advocated the recognition of the GP with many governments, health ministries and stakeholders at WONCA South Asia Conferences and WHO meetings.
He was associated with the RCGP, UK in the formation of the MRCGP South Asia Board since its inception in 2003, and became an examiner of the MRCGP (International) South Asia examination from 2007 up to now. He was elected as the Board Chair of the MRCGP (International) South Asia Board in 2016 and is still steering with great dedication, and is a much admired and respected personality as a truly committed family physician in the South Asian region.
He has been teaching family medicine to the undergraduates of the Colombo, Sri Jayewardenepura and the North Colombo medical faculties, as a visiting lecturer in their extended faculty. At the Postgraduate Institute of Medicine (PGIM) of the University of Colombo, he undertook lectures and took in students in family medicine for their clinical rotations in general practice from the late 1990s until 2012. He also takes in overseas students who come to Sri Lanka on their elective appointments in general practice. His students enjoy his theoretical and clinical teaching sessions and become partners in learning with him and no doubt acquire “knowledge with compassion” (Cum Scientia Caritas).
He continues to teach and is very passionate about it. Besides his clinical acumen he is a role model to his students who enjoy his teaching sessions. He shows by example, how to be an honest, empathetic, caring doctor. On the last day of the student appointments, they are given a short lecture on “Ethics of practice” and his parting advice to them is “Do not exploit your patient’s pain and suffering, to make your life better” – which means to be honest, communicate well and deliver cost-effective care and to always be conscious of the fact that the majority of our patients are poor in our countries.
He is also the Chair of the Ethics Committee of the SLMA and also Durdans Hospitals Ethics Committee and is always on high alert to sensitise his colleagues and peers, about ethical norms in practice which sometimes is not well-taken. He is the Vice President and the Managing Director – Medical of Durdans Hospital, Colombo.
He has been an examiner for the diploma in family medicine (DFM) at the PGIM until 2012. When the DFM used to be conducted by the PGIM in Chennai, India (the only exam conducted by the PGIM for overseas students to date) he served as a pioneering examiner for that exam. He continues to examine at the MCGP exams of the CGPSL since its inception and is the incumbent Chair of the MCGP Board of the CGPSL. He is also a founder examiner for the MRCGP (International) South Asia since 2007 to date. He is a much sought-after trainer-of-trainers for examiners in family medicine in Sri Lanka and for the MRCGP (International) South Asia Board which he currently chairs.
All these achievements of Dr. Preethi have come through partnerships he has built over the years with various stakeholders. Quite often, when we speak of academic and professional partnerships the most important partnership of all is often forgotten or only mentioned as a footnote. That is the partnership of marriage. Sunethra, the wind beneath Dr. Preethi’s wings is equally deserving of all his accomplishments and achievements. Her attention to detail in matters particularly on social events be it at the SLMA, CGPSL, WONCA or a simple get together at their lovely home no doubt extends to all of Dr. Preethi’s professional work. Her touch is in fact evident in Dr. Preethi’s private clinic and their residence where the interior design and the wonderfully maintained garden he simply cannot take any credit for.
Dr. Preethi has brought great honour and recognition not to himself alone, but also to the discipline of family medicine in Sri Lanka and the South Asian region where the discipline lacks the recognition at national levels to make a real impact on the health status of its citizens. In this day and age of fractionalisation of disease care to ever increasing levels (as it should) the concept of healthcare (as opposed to disease care) is often forgotten. Dr. Preethi’s life work which has been recognised by the RCGP, UK is based on the concept of providing holistic healthcare to individuals, families, and their communities in a way which they are comfortable with, based on well tried-and-tested principles of family medicine.
“Medicine is a matter of science. Scientific advances become medical progress only when they reach the people who need them most.” Dr. Preethi has shown the world that a humble family physician with minimal essential resources can serve as a medium to bring scientific advances into people’s everyday lives through the provision of healthcare “Cum Scientia Caritas”.
(The writer is a family physician and currently serves as Head of the Department of Family Medicine at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo, and is the past president of the Sri Lanka Medical Association [SLMA])