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Medical services: A priority in Colombia

13-02-2014 Article

In Colombia, health-care providers have their own distinctive and protective emblem called the "misión médica", a term that encompasses medical services as a whole. In August 2002, the promotion and use of this emblem to identify medical personnel, facilities and vehicles became a national priority when the Ministry of Health and Social Protection issued a decree stipulating that medical services must be protected. The decree also prompted the drafting, in 2008, of the country’s first-ever manual covering protection for medical services.

In 2012, the decree was amended to extend protection for medical services to include all situations of violence, not just armed conflict, and the manual was revised accordingly. Now widely circulated among health-care professionals, the manual provides practical advice on a number of issues, including attacks on medical staff and patients, acts of perfidy, the use of the protective emblem and monitoring of its misuse. The guidelines it contains for ensuring the safety of medical personnel, facilities and vehicles makes the manual a unique tool.

“We find the manual very useful because it responds to the daily concerns of health-care professionals,” said Ivonne Muñoz, a government representative in charge of protection for medical services in Cauca, south-western Colombia. “Thanks to the manual, hospitals and health-care workers are more aware of the legal framework applicable to their professions and more interested in doing things right – also, every time a violation is committed against medical services, we get a report, as it should be.”

The initiative of drafting and publicizing the legal texts and related training materials was taken by the Ministry of Health and Social Protection and the office of the country’s vice-president, with the support and cooperation of the ICRC delegation in Bogota and the Colombian Red Cross.

A series of other tools has been developed to promote understanding of and respect for the protective emblem, including a poster, radio spots and leaflets.


Colombia, Nariño department, Roberto Payán municipality. An ICRC employee explains the basic rules of protection of medical facilities in armed conflicts and the importance of respecting the signs. 

Colombia, Nariño department, Roberto Payán municipality. An ICRC employee explains the basic rules of protection of medical facilities in armed conflicts and the importance of respecting the signs.
© ICRC / Boris Heger / V-P-CO-E-02262

Over the last two decades, attacks against medical personnel, facilities and vehicles have occurred on a regular basis in Colombia. According to the Ministry of Health and Social Protection, there were 1,107 direct attacks against health-care providers and facilities throughout Colombia between 1996 and 31 October 2013, and these claimed 910 victims. Incidents of this kind had a serious impact on the working conditions of medical personnel and did incalculable harm to vulnerable communities by jeopardizing their access to health-care services. Around one third of all recorded incidents involved threats against medical personnel. The number of deadly attacks was very high, and restrictions on or lack of access to health-care facilities was all too common. After climbing steadily prior to 2002, the number of attacks seemed to gradually decrease. Since 2012, however, Colombian authorities have recorded an important increase in the number of incidents targeting medical services.

See also:

Colombia: River boat health care


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