Thursday, November 29, 2007

An apology to Dr. Alfredo Bengzon

A supposed-to-be feel-good Sunday feature that I wrote (p. 1, Inquirer, Nov. 25) turned out to be feel-bad thing, not just for the persons and institutions concerned but also for me, the writer, as well.

I made a mistake—not deliberate, of course—and I am sorry.

The front page story was on the Ateneo School of Medicine and Public Health’s (ASMPH) bold move in medical education (“Ateneo graduates in 5 years MDs and MBAs”) which is something unprecedented. The story went well until the last portion where I wrote: “Bengzon, an Atenean who finished medicine at the University of the Philippines, recalls speaking at his alma mater and saying that UP had become a staging area for doctors ‘tailor-made to be exported abroad.’”

Dr. Bengzon, ASMPH dean, denies having said that that “UP had become a staging area for doctors ‘tailor-made to be exported abroad.’”

I must state here that it caused him pain and embarrassment especially. UP is, in fact, helping ASMPH by providing the needed faculty. The Ateneo, UP and La Salle University systems have, among themselves, a memorandum of agreement on sharing of faculty.

UP itself has, in fact, created a medical curriculum that exposes their graduates to health problems in poor communities and the systemic and structural problems in society that affect people’s health.

After Dr. Bengzon and I had gone over what transpired at the three-hour-or-so conversation/interview some months ago where he talked about ASMPH, I agree that I had misquoted him and taken his statements out of context.

He had spoken about medical schools’ curricula, the mismatch of the training of doctors and the realities in society and “staging areas” for societal reforms and health outcomes. He spoke about doctors not just as clinicians but as managers and leaders who would be catalysts of change in society. And so the training of doctors should not simply remain in the curative mode but should be preventive as well—with doctors-managers-leaders helping to address the “disconnection” between sick individuals and a sick society.

Dr. Bengzon, a former secretary of health and chief negotiator representing government on the staying or removal of the US bases, is not just a medical doctor, he is also a manager. He has a master’s degree in business administration and is CEO of The Medical City, the training hospital of ASMPH.

But let me explain why that wayward quote came about. I had the jargon mixed up in my notes and thought that when Dr. Bengzon recalled speaking at the UP during the centennial celebration, the issue of UP’s medical graduates going on an exodus for foreign lands was something he brought up. What candor, I thought, that this UP alumnus would say this, no holds barred, to his alma matter. That was the reason why I thought a quote like that would not cause a stir. A quote which, in my stupidity, I thought and believed I heard.

While doctors leaving the Philippines in droves is an issue, Dr. Bengzon clarified that this issue is not exclusive to graduates of any teaching medical institution. And he was not singling out UP. And I say this: he was not out to single out UP to make Ateneo look good.

I had spoken to UP-Manila chancellor Dr. Ramon Arcadio to help clear the air and the soft-spoken chancellor told me that he tried to take the wayward quote with humor. Like, UP’s medical graduates must be that good that they “are tailor-made for export”.

The quote did not sit well with UP’s faculty and Dr. Bengzon suddenly found himself under fire. And it was not his fault. The fault was mine.

I am a graduate of the Ateneo myself and I would not want to jeopardize my alma mater’s relationship with another great institution of learning.

I hope to make something positive out of this. Like doing a story on the state of medical education in the Philippines. Many medical schools, I am told, deserve to be padlocked.

I believe we could find a way to turn a bad situation into something positive. Like when my car was stolen, I wrote a long investigative series on carnapping, carjacking, chop-chop, people and institutions in cahoots, etc.

I am sorry, I apologize. I have a good reputation as a journalist, I am not a careless journalist who would invent and put words into people’s mouths, or unnecessarily pit one person against another or cause unnecessary pain or embarrassment. But I make mistakes too. This is a humbling experience but this does not mean I will be treading on eggs from now on or freeze in my tracks.

I would have wanted to tackle in today’s column piece UP’s ladder-system School of Health Sciences in the provinces and the Ateneo Professional School’s Leaders for Health Program but these two trail-blazing efforts deserve a bigger space. So next week, this will be.


ICOMOS (International Council for Monuments and Sites) is holding a meeting in Banaue from Dec. 2-8, and has invited international heritage experts to the Philippines for the first time to discuss conservation and the socio-economic issues. Inquirer columnist Augusto Villalon is Philippine chairman of the ICOMOS executive committee in Paris.

On top of the agenda are the endangered Rice Terraces of the Cordilleras, a UNESCO-inscribed World Heritage Site. Endangered because of physical deterioration and because the resident population that has always maintained the site is having difficulty with the preservation job in this 21st century. International experts will present case studies showing steps taken in other world sites with similar issues.

Preserving heritage would be a lost cause unless it is made relevant to the host communities and becomes part of development and income generation.