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Last Updated: Friday, 30 June 2006, 08:00 GMT 09:00 UK
Doctors tackle important business
By Jane Dreaper
BBC News health correspondent

BMA conference
Doctors were ready with strong views
Any policy-making forum has its moments of getting bogged down in procedure.

The BMA's annual meeting in Belfast hit that territory at lunchtime on Wednesday.

Motion OD1 had been replaced by a pre-amble, but one doctor declared that the pre-amble was actually a ramble.

Another speaker complained: "This is descending into chaos."

Journalists shared a giggle, though the hard-working press officers promised that all would become clear in a briefing afterwards.

Dr Edwin Borman, from the BMA's Council, wanted viii (or little point 8, as the conference parlance goes) deleted.

The main theme of the BMA meeting was a sense of hardening opposition to the government's reforms

This referred to a call for a day of action, to demand an end to privatisation and job cuts in the NHS.

"I see absolutely no advantage to the medical profession having this rather farcical approach to dealing with policy being paraded more widely in public," he told the meeting.

It is, of course, easy to poke fun at moments like this.

In fact, the BMA representatives managed to get through the procedural mire - guided by the meeting's chairman, Dr Michael Wilks, who at one point joked: "I know what you're voting for - even if you don't!"

The result was a statement on the BMA's position on NHS reform in England - calling for, among other things, no further involvement of the private sector.

This isn't a dusty document that will sit on a shelf - it is a formal policy that BMA leaders will take to a special meeting with the Health Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, next week.

'Leadership failure'

But some BMA members dispute the value of such meetings.

Mr James Johnson
James Johnson retained the top job despite criticism

On Monday afternoon, they passed a motion agreeing that the current BMA leadership "has failed patients, the profession and the country by their failure to actively oppose the current wave of organisational and financial reforms".

It was a signal of some of the dissent against the BMA's chairman, James Johnson, who survived a leadership challenge in a vote held on the final day of the conference.

It is a difficult time to be heading an organisation representing NHS staff, because of the current uncertainty felt by many staff in the health service.

And had a health minister been invited to the BMA meeting, there would have been no apology about the pace of reform.

The lack of an invitation shouldn't be interpreted as a snub - it is simply a tradition for this gathering (though an exception was made last year when Patricia Hewitt had been newly appointed).

The absence of a minister means there aren't the headline-grabbing confrontations, such as the hostile reception Ms Hewitt was given by nurses in April.

Worthwhile business

But many of the delegates at these sorts of meetings feel they nonetheless complete plenty of worthwhile business, even if it sometimes has a lower profile.

The main theme of the BMA meeting was a sense of hardening opposition to the government's reforms - though whether ministers will make any changes as a result is another matter.

Other matters were close to people's hearts: the conference began with a minute's silence in remembrance of the 7 July bombings.

BMA staff and members played a crucial role in helping people injured by the bomb that exploded on a bus near their headquarters at Tavistock Square in London.

The meeting discussed changes to the system for training junior doctors - a source of concern to many in the profession.

It sounds like an internal issue - but there is a wider fear that taxpayers' money could be wasted if young colleagues end up leaving the country after years of expensive training - though the government says the BMA is panicking, and these fears are unfounded.

End of life issues

And it was no surprise that one of the most contentious ethical issues - the idea of whether doctors should help terminally ill patients commit suicide - was once again on the agenda.

After some heavy briefing behind the scenes from both sides, doctors reversed last year's neutral position on assisted dying and returned to the BMA's previous stance of opposing the notion.

Does it matter that doctors spend time debating these issues? Does it make a difference?

The answer has to be yes. Two years ago at the annual meeting, there were particularly strong calls for legislation to make workplaces smoke-free.

Look what has happened since then.

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