Sociopaths in Medical School

The NEJM recently had an interesting article calling on medical schools to do a better job identifying students who exhibit “unprofessional behavior” before allowing them to graduate. The link for that article is HERE (subscription required). While admitting that it was difficult to consistently and reliably identify such students, the authors claimed that every medical school staff annually could likely identify one or two students “whom they would not allow to care for their family.” The article goes on to describe the barriers that prevent medical schools from accurately identifying unethical behavior in their students and some of the problems associated with trying to use the limited data that is available to delay or even prevent such a student from graduating medical school.

Going so far as to label students with unethical behavior as sociopaths is admittedly hyperbole on my part for the sake of rhetoric. In my defense, the article does touch upon the fact that there are a few physicians, presumably in every class, who commit “criminal or malicious acts”. The authors then go on to ask how we might identify these individuals before they behave “unprofessionally”, ideally before they graduate medical school. I presently have no doubt that anyone who has ever attended medical school can think of at least one person in their graduating class whom they would prevent from treating their immediate family.

I heard an excellent lecture on this issue more than 15 years ago by Dr. John Patrick, former Associate Professor of Clinical Nutrition at the University of Ottawa, who now speaks worldwide on issues of medical ethics, culture, public policy and the integration of faith and science. In speaking to a group of medical students about the need for transcendence in Hippocratic Medicine in a lecture entitled “Meaning and Purpose in Medicine”, he says about the sociopaths in their midst (beginning at 38:25 in the audio):

“…you can name them in your class already, you know who they are. You could tell me in your class the two or three people who are likely to lose their licenses for immoral or bad behavior in the future. The faculty never have a clue. You know. But you have already left Christian ethics, and loyalty dominates your class, so you don’t tell us. We find out 5 or 6 years later when they lose their license. And nothing on their university transcripts but all the students are not surprised.”

I originally wondered about the veracity of this claim so, for several years, I conducted a simple survey of the first year medical students in our local medical school. For a period of time, I was the very first clinical lecturer the students heard as they prepared for their first exam on the anatomy of the spine, just 10 days after beginning medical school. At the beginning of the lecture, I asked the students to look at me directly and, without speaking or glancing at their fellow classmates, answer the following question in their head: “After being together for the past 10 days, have any of you met at least one person in your first year class to whom you would not trust to care for someone you loved?” Invariably, over half of the class smiled, many while quickly glancing in the direction of the same one or two potential sociopaths in their class.

Why is this bioethically important? Dr. Patrick contends, and I suspect many of the readers of this blog agree, while the study of medicine is a scientific endeavor, focused on the accumulation of scientific knowledge, the practice of medicine is mainly a moral endeavor. Physicians are trying to work with their patients to help them do what they “ought” to do, as agreed upon by both the physician and patient. Such an endeavor demands mutual respect and trust so there is no place for unethical behavior on the part of the physician caring for a vulnerable patient.

Sadly, as both Dr. Patrick and the authors of the recent NEJM point out, while we are fairly adept at selecting medical students who can handle the academic rigor and have sufficient self-discipline to succeed in medical school from a knowledge standpoint, we remain woefully inadequate at assessing the ethical character of those same students to make sure they have the necessary moral integrity to actually practice medicine.

Unless that can be remedied, we should expect the continued gradual replacement of rich, lifelong, covenantal doctor-patient relationships with sterile, limited, contractural provider-client partnerships.

[I encourage readers to follow the link to Dr. Patrick’s website for a wealth of audio lectures on bioethics, culture and the integration of faith and science. Begin with the above link for “Meaning and Purpose in Medicine”]

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