To Tell the Truth

One of the foundations of medical ethics is the importance of truth-telling by physicians.  The relationship between a patient and physician depends on the patient being able to trust the physician which depends on truth-telling.  When I discuss this with students their expectations are for physicians to be fully and completely honest with their patients.

But what about patients being truthful with their doctors?  Recently Time online referred to an article in The Arizona Republic about patients lying to their doctors.  It talks about the ways that patients tend to be less than fully honest when they talk to their doctors, and how that can interfere with getting proper care.

It seems obvious that physicians should be truthful with their patients and patients should be truthful with their physicians, but we don’t always do that because it is hard.   It is hard to tell a patient something the he or she does not want to hear.  It is hard to tell your physician that you are not really exercising three times a week (or your dentist that you don’t floss every day).  We want to please other people and have them approve of us, and we don’t want to make them feel bad.

Sometimes, though, we need to do what is hard to do what is right.  1 Cor 13:6 reminds us that love “rejoices with the truth.”

Machines on the Maternity Ward

I’m going to dovetail on Joe’s post once again.  Today, my girlfriend and I visited the hospital to see her friend’s new baby boy.  The floor was quiet as we got off the elevator.  We must have looked confused because the custodian set his mop down for a second and said, “You have to use the phone.”  Sure enough, next to a set of large double-doors was a red phone.  We picked up the phone.  “Yes, we’d like to see so-and-so.  She is here with her new baby.”  The unseen operator responded with a buzz, and magically the big doors swung open.  The big doors were there for security reasons, and I suppose they work for less than the watchman or the receptionist.  After we surrendered our IDs in exchange for “Visitor” stickers, we found the hum that was the room of the mom and her new son.  Friends and family stirred around taking turns holding the bundle of joy.  There was mom watching on, sitting up in her hospital bed.  And there was the machine–tall, flickering, and looming over the bed.  You see, she was not just the mother here; she was the patient.  I was thankful for the armoire of dark wood in the corner that lent a little softness to the room with its tiny, soft inhabitant.  After a while, the nurse entered and began to rummage around the hospital bed.  Yes!  Hurrah!  She began to untether mom from the IV bag.  Mom said, “Sure is good to get all that stuff off of me.”  Yes, I thought, maybe now she can hold her baby.

 

In Response to “Of Machines and Men”

I think Joe hit the nail on the head.  One of the reasons I’ve focused on personhood during my short bioethics career is that American physicians are increasingly unable to distinguish between the human being and the biological system.  Some deny altogether the existence of anything beyond the physical body, but others only consider the spirit or the soul to be some sort of esoteric thing about which one might philosophize.  As a result most physicians believe that if they know the medical information, perform the procedure correctly, and achieve a good outcome then they have practiced good medicine.  Tips they can gain from Abraham Verghese about interacting with the patient are icing on the cake.  An inspirational insight from Atul Gawande allows them to be reflective in their spare time.   But really, those kinds of things are for humanities professors or hospital social workers.  In the medical curriculum, we see this value system in ethics teaching that amounts to not much more than instruction on managing emotional responses.   “Use this phrase when talking to a patient about cancer so they will feel this way.”  “When you enter the exam room, perceive the patient’s disposition by examining facial cues and posture.”  If the physician uses a stimulus-response framework for patient interaction, then he has fallen back into the same problem all over again.  That’s why mentorship is so important in medicine: a student “lives life” with the attending physician so as to acquire his way of looking at the world, not just his skills.  That’s why the oaths—Hippocrates, Maimonides, or others—are so important: they emphasize that medicine is a covenant between two people before it’s anything else.  And, most notably, that’s why a medical practice most consistent with Jesus’s healing ministry is one which would still have something to offer if the machine and the lab report were not even there.

 

Of Machines and Men (Part I)

 

As part of my job, I have the privilege of participating in the delivery of many babies.  I was at one such blessed event earlier this week.  There were several medical personnel and the father standing around the bed of the expectant mother. Due to the wonders of epidural anesthesia, she was quite comfortable, despite the fact that she was in the final stages of labor.

Suddenly I became aware of what all of us were doing — myself, my residents, the nurse, even the father: we were watching a machine. The mother was hooked up to a machine that monitored both the baby’s heart rate and her own contractions. The rest of us stood and stared at the machine. When the machine showed she was having a contraction, we would all turn towards her and encourage her to push, cheerleaders for her and the little life that she was bringing into the world.  But we kept one eye on the machine, and as soon as it indicated the contraction was over, we turned away from the mother and towards the machine again, waiting expectantly for it to tell us when the next contraction was coming.

With a sense of deja vu I realized that I had observed a similar phenomenon in the ICU: doctors, therapists, nurses, even family and visitors who had no idea what the little multi-colored squiggly lines on the monitor meant, nonetheless staring expectantly at the monitor on the wall instead of at the patient in the bed.  And in my training of resident physicians, I have watched videotaped patient encounters showing them sitting in the office with the patient, staring deeply into the computer screen instead of at the patient who has come to see them.  Similarly, in their inpatient work, the residents spend a few minutes on the hospital floor seeing their patients, and the remaining hours of the day (and night) staring into a computer screen, tending to the computerized chart — the “iPatient,” as Abraham Verghese called it here.

The practice of medicine has historically been founded on the physician-patient relationship;  on that foundation has been erected an edifice of techniques and technologies, tools for medical practitioners to use in serving their patients. However, it seems that in our time the tools are beginning to attack the foundation of medicine rather than just being used by it. For a variety of reasons, the tools and technologies increasingly become the center of the physician’s attention. Instead of medical practitioners defining how the tools are used, the tools begin to define what medicine is. We are becoming what Neil Postman called a Technoloply: our tools change and determine our practice’s purpose and meaning, our very way of knowing and thinking and relating to our patients.

 

Edmund Pellegrino once wrote, “Men have always sensed that the more they forged and the more machines they built, the more they were forced to know, to love, and to serve these devices.” (From Humanism and the Physician.)

 

Next week:  Some thoughts on what we can do about the ascendancy of the machine in medicine.

 

House calls and Hippocrates

Last week I was in the “piney woods” of northern Louisiana.  I had thought I would write a blog entry from there, but time and internet access were scarce, so I’m doing it this week. My wife and I were visiting her parents, Aaron and Betty.  I have always enjoyed being with them and this trip was no exception.  It was also a time to check on how they were doing.  They are both in their 80s and have some significant health problems.

On Tuesday Betty’s visiting nurse came to see her, and it made me think of the part of the Hippocratic Oath that says “Into whatever houses I enter, I will go into them for the benefit of the sick.”  Physicians don’t take care of their patients in their homes very much any more.  There are good reasons why things have changed, but there are things that have been lost.

The nurse who comes out to see Betty is becoming part of the family.  They offer her tea and cake and Aaron teases her like he does his daughter.

In the sterile environment of the hospital or office a patient can become a diabetic or an arthritic or a stroke victim.  In her home she is the person she really is and it is harder to miss that.  Those of us who care for the sick need to remember that what we are doing should be for the benefit of those we care for.  Those who receive our care are real people with homes and families who are welcoming the physicians and nurses and others who care for them into their lives just like they would welcome us into their homes.

We need to enter into their lives as respectfully as we would enter their homes and realize we are being accepted as a part of their family.

Safe Passage

I came across this description of the duties of a physician, from an 1858 lecture to medical students:  diagnosis, treatment, the relief of symptoms, and the provision of safe passage.

The provision of safe passage struck me as a concept we would do well to rehabilitate.  It is an evocative phrase:  protecting and helping someone on a long voyage.  That is generally not how we are taught to think about death in medical school.  Death is failure!  It is a cliff, a precipice to be avoided, rather than a voyage that everyone ultimately has to make.  We have a tendency to approach the precipice in one of three ways:  most often, we try to keep the dying patient from falling over the edge, wrapping them up and pulling them back  from the brink with ventilator hoses and feeding tubes and intravenous drips and every heroically inappropriate medical intervention and test we can conceive of;  or we realize that there’s nothing we can do, so we abandon them;  or, increasingly, in the name of “compassion,” we push them over the edge with physician-assisted suicide.  What a difference it could make if, instead of treating death as a precipice from which we attempt to keep a patient indefinitely, we understood death as a voyage each person will have to make.  What a difference if, instead of being trained to stave off the inevitable at any cost, doctors were trained to recognize — and to help patients recognize — when the voyage is approaching, how to help patients to prepare for it, and how to help them to make it a “safe passage,” a good death for them and their families.

 

I Pledge Myself

I asked several young doctors who have completed medical school in the last 5-10 years which oath they took upon graduation.  No one could remember, and some weren’t sure whether they took an oath at all.  Really, an oath of any kind is out of place in a culture that doesn’t value making a statement that binds oneself.  There is very little agreement on what theory of medical practice to which one might adhere.  One of my professors mentioned in her Hippocratic Oath lecture that the prohibition against giving “a woman a pessary to cause an abortion” was not really a prohibition against performing abortions.   In the days following World War II, the Physician’s Oath of the World Medical Association pledged “even under threat, I will not use my medical knowledge contrary to the laws of humanity.”  Today, the American Medical Association, a WMA member, recognizes there is disagreement on the usefulness of the Hippocratic Oath, states that it’s Principles of Ethics define behavior but are not laws, and notes that regulatory agencies—which do not administer oaths—have the real means to respond to physician behavior.

Albert Jonsen, et. al’s Clinical Ethics: A Practical Approach to Ethical Decisions in Clinical Medicine states that “physicians must avoid exploitation of patients for their own profit or reputation.”  It’s hard to understand how such a platitude is to play out in the real world if physicians do not pledge themselves to it.  I heard a doctor once refer to the lucrative nature of a pulmonology specialty as “the gravy train.”  Many frame their practice in terms of which procedures bring in income.  This seems odd; because according to this model, the absence of illness is a business failure.  As Maimonides would say, “the enemies of truth and philanthropy could easily deceive me and make me forgetful of my lofty aim of doing good to Thy children.”

 

 

Stop those prying doctors!

 

Florida residents have their saviors in the Florida legislature to thank for shielding them from the insidious “prying into personal lives” that doctors have shamelessly been inflicting upon patients.

Apparently, doctors have been asking their patients questions about whether they own guns, and – prepare yourself for a shock – if the patient answers in the affirmative, some doctors have actually been counseling patients on how to store the guns safely and protect any other people in the home, particularly children, from accidental harm.

Fortunately, some attentive citizens were alerted to this disgusting practice and enlisted the NRA in helping them to get the Florida legislature to pass, and the Florida governor to sign on June 2nd, HB 155, which prohibits physicians from making written or oral inquiries regarding firearms ownership or recording such information in a patient’s chart (unless the doc believes “that this information is relevant to the patient’s medical care or safety, or the safety of others”).

It is a great relief to see that the physician-patient relationship — too long the purview of a suspiciously-dressed clique of highly-trained, dedicated professionals and their trusting patients, too long full of “prying into personal lives” as exemplified by questions like, “How do you feel?” “Does that hurt?”  “What do you use for contraception?” and “Did anybody in your family ever have cancer?” — is at last being exposed and regulated by those people we all trust way more than we do our doctors, the elected representatives in our legislatures.  My only regret is that some of the original provisions of the bill, such as the stipulation that a violation would amount to a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine as high as $5 million, did not make it into the final legislation.

Encouraged by the NRA’s success, other bodies are stepping up to protect the unsuspecting public from some of the horrifying practices that routinely take place behind the closed doors of the consulting room.  The Tobacco Growers Coalition is promoting legislation to ban doctors from making inquiries about smoking, the GFFFA (Greasy Fried Fast Food Alliance) is working to make it illegal for doctors to counsel their patients about healthy diets, the NARL is drafting laws to ensure that doctors don’t counsel pregnant patients against abortion, and the Colombian drug cartels are looking for ways to prevent doctors from advising patients against using their special brand of products.

Sound too ridiculous to be true?  OK, I made that last paragraph up.  But read this.

Lest anyone misunderstand, this post is not about gun ownership, nor do I have anything against the NRA.  This post is about unwarranted encroachment upon the sanctity of the central economy of the medical profession, the physician-patient relationship;  and about what sort of Rubicon has been crossed when the paranoid intrusion and constraint represented by this bill is placed upon the good will and judgment of a doctor — and enshrined in the law of the land.

Going where no man should go

In a recent article titled “Extreme Science” (August, 2011), Wired magazine broaches a topic that few mainstream publications would be willing to touch.  What could be accomplished if scientists were prepared to set aside the “moral compass” that guides them (assuming there is one)?  Imagine the advances waiting to be made.  As Wired observes, in the real world (as opposed to the sci-fi world), “Most scientists will assure you that ethical rules never hinder good research – that there’s always a virtuous path to testing any important hypothesis.  But ask them in private… and they’ll confess that the dark side does have its appeal.”  http://www.wired.com/magazine/2011/07/ff_swr/

For example, scientists could separate sets of twins at birth in order to control and monitor their individual environments right from the start.  The gain from such an experiment is a possible solution to the nature vs. nurture dilemma.  Think about a twin study in which both individuals are eventually identified as gay, regardless of their distinct upbringing.  This could offer proof that homosexuality is all nature and not nurture.  In another example, Wired considers the possibility of “womb swapping,” i.e., switching “the embryos of obese women with those of thin women.”  Again, the experiment would determine whether environment or genetic factors determine an individual’s weight.  Then there is an experiment right out of a science fiction movie, one that cross-breeds a human with a chimpanzee.  Wired reports that the technique would be “frighteningly easy” and it would teach us much about human development.

But what actually prevents unethical research from happening?  It could be argued that these experiments are blatant violations of individual autonomy.  But the fact of the matter is that human autonomy is already disregarded with other procedures (e.g., human embryonic stem cell research, abortion, etc.).  In other words, what is the essential moral difference between destroying an early embryo in lieu of subjecting it to controlled research?  One may even maintain that the twins, separated at birth, are at least alive as opposed to embryos that are destroyed.

Then again, one could argue that the main difference is that twins will eventually come to understand their situation and realize that their autonomy has been violated.  On the other hand, destroyed embryos will never know their fate.  Fair enough.  But if morality is governed by utilitarian concerns, as it already is, it would seem that the value gained by subjecting embryos to questionable research outweighs their future concern for autonomy.  And if “awareness of one’s autonomy” is the key moral criterion, then research could be extended to any human lacking awareness (e.g., newborns, coma patients, etc.).

In short, humans have the rational capacity to consider all options to achieve an objective.  Humans have also demonstrated a natural tendency to push the moral envelope, to give priority to what can be done over what should be done.  Time will tell whether experiments which are now considered unethical will one day be the norm.

Black Americans and Healthcare

The USA Today recently reported on the difficulties faced by African-Americans seeking healthcare in Alabama.  Death rates are higher for most categories of illness in black communities.  Oftentimes, physicians are unfamiliar with the obstacles encountered by residents in a particular neighborhood, such as the lack of fresh, healthy food in the grocery stores.  USA Today touts a new federal Health and Human Services program as a first step in identifying health disparities.  Churches provide support groups that assist in educating people about their health.  However, there is little time or money being spent by the Christian community to build clinics in communities such as this one in Alabama.  An overall infrastructure for providing charitable ministries is missing.

In Texas, it is common for people to say that if a person wants to have good healthcare they need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.  An African-American friend of mine at Trinity once told me in response, “The problem is, some people don’t have any straps.”