In Part 1 of this article, I explained my completely non-religious, entirely secular, totally logic-based objection to abortion.
To summarize: It is axiomatic that a woman has a perfect right to choose what she does with her own body, right up until the point that her choice infringes on the equally inherent rights of another person. (If this were not an axiom, then the whole concept of natural rights would be destroyed, and a person’s right to take some action that harms a second person would depend only on how much power the first person has over the second. While this arrangement is indeed common enough, we generally do not consider it to be right, or proper, or ethical, or a suitable basis for establishing a civil society.) So the key question is: When, during the creation of a human life, is a new human life actually created?
When we allow our Experts to establish an arbitrary point, after fertilization of the egg, which defines when a human life is present and when it is not, then no matter what logic they may have invoked in the process, it will be all too easy for the Experts to shift this arbitrary dividing line at any time, under duress or for matters of convenience, to exclude from “human life” other categories of individuals such as babies, or the elderly, or disabled people, or demented people, or fat people.
And to illustrate the point, I pointed out that Progressive ethicists are already arguing that the definition of “non-personhood” used by proponents of abortion is readily extensible to young children, and thus permits (at the least) infanticide. Specifically, given that abortion is permitted for any reason, these ethicists argue, parents also should be permitted to terminate the lives of their young children for any reason they may choose. (And thus, presumably, Casey Anthony should have been left alone without all the fuss and muss of a trial.)
So again, my secular, logic-based objection to abortion boils down to a single question: Is there some objective criterion by which it is OK to terminate a fetus, without also making it OK to terminate an inconvenient infant or toddler (or other types of inconvenient humans)? Progressive ethicists have determined that there is not. To me, this startling fact makes abortion problematic.
This brings us, at last, to President Obama. I have implied that Mr. Obama and I have some common ground when it comes to the issue of abortion – even though our conclusions about abortion are opposite one another. That common ground is this: when we allow Experts to define “human life” arbitrarily, we are opening ourselves up to a slippery slope. Specifically, any arbitrary definition of human life you can devise is readily extensible to places we would not like to go, and will result in horrible abuses. President Obama and I completely agree on this point.
This fact is made apparent from remarks made by then-State-Senator Obama in 2003, when he chaired the Illinois Senate Health and Human Services Committee. At that time, Senator Obama’s committee was considering the Born Alive Infant Protection Act (BAIPA) a proposed bill aimed at protecting infants who are born alive after botched “induced labor abortions,” a type of abortion sometimes used when the fetus is well beyond the first trimester.
In induced labor abortion, labor is induced prematurely with drugs. The idea is to produce a “late miscarriage.” Specifically, the result of this premature labor is supposed to be the delivery a lifeless (albeit baby-shaped) mass of tissue. And for pregnancies that are no more than 20 or 21 weeks along, this is generally what happens.
But, as is always the case with advanced medical techniques, some doctors insist on “pushing the envelope,” and have taken to offering induced labor abortions to women who are further along into their 2nd (or even third) trimesters. And (predictably) when this is done, the mass of tissue that ends up being delivered turns out occasionally to be a live baby.
Needless to say, a live birth invariably proves deeply embarrassing to any self-respecting abortion doctor who has his professional reputation to think about. So, naturally, steps are taken to correct the situation. In certain Illinois hospitals, whose actions had induced the introduction of the BAIPA, the usual remedy, apparently, was to place the inconveniently living product of the botched abortion on a shelf in the Soiled Linen Room, where it would remain unattended and alone until it no longer impersonated a live baby, a process which might take a few minutes or a few hours. Some hospital personnel found this procedure disturbing and reported it to state legislators, who were moved to write the BAIPA.
The BAIPA noted that any person born in the United States is a US citizen according to the 14th Amendment, and as a citizen that person is entitled to the same medical care that would be routinely given to any other citizen. Furthermore, such routine medical care, when given to babies born prematurely at the same gestational age as many of these aborted babies, not infrequently results in a healthy child.
State Senator Obama objected to the bill for more than one reason. For instance, he held that, once the abortion doctor determines that a fetus is pre-viable, it should be taken as law that the child is pre-viable even if (oops!) it is born alive. The fact that the child is alive, and might potentially respond to medical care, seemed to carry no weight with him. And the fact that these tiny babies invariably die soon enough when banished alone to the cold, dark hell of the Soiled Linen Room might even constitute evidence that he is correct – although even full-term babies would not survive for very long in such environs.
But to get a flavor for Senator Obama’s chief objection to the BAIPA, let us turn to the transcript of his own words from one of the hearings held for this bill:
“….as I understand it, Sen. O’Malley, the testimony during the committee indicated that one of the key concerns was – - is that there was a method of abortion, and induced abortion, where the – - the fetus or child, as – - as some might describe it — is still temporarily alive outside the womb. And one of those concerns that came out in the testimony was the fact that they were not being properly cared for during that brief period of time that they were still living……Number one, whenever we define a pre-viable fetus as a person that is protected by the equal protection clause or the other elements in the Constitution, what we’re really saying is, in fact, that they are persons that are entitled to the kinds of protections that we would be provided to a – - a child, a nine-month-old – - child that was delivered to term. That determination then, essentially, if it was accepted by a court, would forbid abortions to take place. I mean, it – - it would essentially bar abortions, because the equal protection clause does not allow somebody to kill a child, and if this is a child, then this would be an anti-abortion statute.”
And here is the key point. Mr. Obama was arguing that we simply cannot define these living babies as being people because doing so would start us down a slippery slope that, at the end of the day, “would forbid abortions to take place.” Mr. Obama was explicitly recognizing that there is no real, fundamental, definitive, essential difference between this squalling, squirming struggling blob and a newly fertilized egg.
If we say this is a person, he is arguing, then that is tantamount to saying that any fetus is a person – which is the same thing as saying that abortion should not be permitted. Therefore, this baby cannot be a person.
And this, dear reader, is the point upon which President Obama and I agree on abortion. It is the most important point of all, and really, is the only point that matters: Once we allow the Experts to define “human life,” then the definition can be changed arbitrarily, at any time, to any definition you want.
While we agree on this fundamental point, however, President Obama and I reach different conclusions about its implications. Given the clear (but suppressed) history of Progressivism, a history featuring the enthusiastic devaluation of various types of inconvenient human life, and given the fact that Progressives are now running our healthcare system and are in charge of deciding who gets what, when and how, I believe we should insist on the most conservative definition of human life possible – the point of fertilization of the egg. Anything else invites grave abuses.
President Obama, on the other hand, insists on a completely open definition of human life, one that allows a very expansive idea of what constitutes, for instance, non-viability. Pinning down the definition of human life, he is saying, will be too limiting. It will certainly limit abortion. As it happens, it will also limit other medical policies that will become necessary in the future as Obamacare rolls out.
I am arguing that any definition of human life that allows abortion will too easily also allow infanticide and other abuses. President Obama emphasizes the other side of this same argument: that disallowing infanticide (and by necessary extension, disallowing the termination of other forms of inconvenient human life) threatens to disallow abortion.
In any case, on the fundamental question, President Obama and I are brothers.
DrRich explains it all in Open Wide and Say Moo! The Good Citizen’s Guide to Right Thoughts and Right Actions Under Obamacare
Now available in the audiobook version!
President Obama is widely regarded as the most pro-abortion President in history, and his public record supports this viewpoint. I, on the other hand, do not favor abortion in most circumstances. So it may surprise many readers to hear that President Obama and I actually agree on the most fundamental question raised by the abortion controversy.
Unlike those small-minded zealots who rage against abortion based on religious grounds – people who Progressives like to dismiss as being mired in superstition and magical thinking – I base my objections to abortion purely on reason and logic, tempered, of course, by my study of human behavior and human history. So it really should not be so surprising that my reasoning about abortion is not so very different from the reasoning of Progressives on abortion, since Progressives insist that their political and economic philosophy is also based on pure reason and logic. And thus, it also follows that my thoughts on abortion might have much in common with the thinking about abortion of the Progressive-in-Chief.
People who have read my book, “Open Wide and Say Moo!” (both of you) will know that my major objection to Obamacare is that it systematically destroys the autonomy of the individual in America, within the healthcare system and everywhere else. Among other things, it forcefully eliminates individual choice in making healthcare decisions. In other words, in every area of healthcare except abortion, Obamacare is anti-choice. Why this inconsistency when it comes to abortion?
In a similar vein, a few readers have now complained to me that my own anti-abortion views are glaringly incompatible with my overall “pro-choice in healthcare” message. How can I be “anti-choice” regarding abortion, and pro-choice everywhere else? Am I being disingenuous, insincere, or just plain stupid?
As it turns out, the reason that both Progressives and certain non-Progressives (such as myself) display a similar apparent disconnect between their pro-choice/anti-choice views in general, and their specific pro-choice/anti-choice views when it comes to abortion, is the same reason.
It has to do with this fact – at some point in time during the creation of a new human life, a new human life is created. And at that point (whenever we decide what that point is), that new human life is endowed with the same rights as any other human life. When that point is reached, we ought not to allow some other entity to act in such a way as to arbitrarily terminate this new human’s natural right to life, liberty, etc. Even Progressives agree with this (or, at least, if they do not agree with it they are unwilling to say so publicly).
Since we all agree (or are unwilling to say that we do not agree) that before a new human life exists a woman has a perfect right to do what she wishes with her own body, but that after a human life exists she only has that right to the extent that she does not infringe upon the natural rights which nature endows to that new life, then the crux of the problem is to define when it is, during the course of the creation of a human life, that a new human life is deemed to be present.
The most conservative definition of human life is when the egg becomes fertilized, and a new entity is created that has a genetic composition distinct from that of the mother. Prior to that, no new entity existed. After that, further distinctions are a matter of degree.
My entirely-non-religious argument against abortion is that the moment we allow our Experts to establish a less conservative definition of when a human life is present and when it is not, our Experts will necessarily be establishing that definition arbitrarily. And whatever logic they may use to determine what does and what does not constitute human life can be – and, based upon a study of human behavior, eventually will be – extended to many other categories of what most of us would consider today to be part of humanity. It is simply my contention that we ought to opt for a conservative definition of “human life” because anything else too easily bleeds into a definition that might exclude live babies, or toddlers, or Old Farts, or disabled people, or demented people, or fat people. These things have already happened within recent memory, and even though we’re Americans, I believe that they could happen again if we are not vigilant. So, I say again, my objection to abortion is entirely logical, that logic being further informed by the disturbing history of Progressivism over the past 120 years.
For readers who think I might be overly concerned about what might follow from a more liberal definition of human life than I have proposed, I will remind you of a recent article, published by two medical ethicists earlier this year in the Journal of Medical Ethics, entitled, “After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?” Here is the authors’ abstract:
“Abortion is largely accepted even for reasons that do not have anything to do with the fetus’ health. By showing that (1) both fetuses and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons, (2) the fact that both are potential persons is morally irrelevant and (3) adoption is not always in the best interest of actual people, the authors argue that what we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.”
These earnestly Progressive ethicists, in other words, propose to allow parents to kill their young children for any reason they might have invoked to abort that child prior to birth – that is, for any reason at all. The key point being made by these ethicists is that, by whatever reasoning a fetus can be considered a non-person, so can an infant, and perhaps even a toddler. And, while they do not say so, so can several other kinds of human life that may not meet their definition of “personhood.”
We should note that these ethicists were not attempting to be particularly provocative, but were merely producing (for the purposes of advancing their academic careers, most likely) yet another scholarly article that simply takes the next, entirely logical and completely unremarkable step in Progressive thought on the matter. Indeed, according to subsequent news reports, these ethicists were entirely stunned and very disturbed by the firestorm of anger their article produced. I mean, who the heck reads the Journal of Medical Ethics?
In any case, it turns out that it is regarding this very issue – that is, in being very, very careful about where we draw the line between human and non-human life – where, I have discovered, my reasoning on the matter turns out to be very similar to the reasoning of none other than President Obama. In a later post I will show exactly how this remarkable happenstance is true.
DrRich explains it all in Open Wide and Say Moo! The Good Citizen’s Guide to Right Thoughts and Right Actions Under Obamacare
Now available in the audiobook version!
On the same day that DrRich published his post about the American College of Physicians’ new Ethics Manual, Rob Stein of NPR’s Health Blog did the same thing. In his post, Mr. Stein took particular notice of the ACP’s admonition to physicians that, in order to practice medicine ethically, they must practice parsimoniously.
DrRich flatters himself to believe that he may be the one who called Mr. Stein’s attention to this remarkable terminology. Mr. Stein had contacted DrRich just prior to the New Year’s holiday for his reaction to the new Ethics Manual – and DrRich responded with a lengthy e-mail containing a substantial riff on the ACP’s usage of “parsimonious” (a riff that was not dissimilar to the one appearing here on the CRB a few days later).
In any case, whether DrRich had anything to do with his focus or not, Mr. Stein (being a reporter instead of a mere ranter) actually interviewed several persons of interest regarding this curious terminology. Dr. Scott Gottlieb of the American Enterprise Institute and Daniel Callahan of the Hastings Center appeared sympathetic to DrRich’s take on “parsimonious,” that is, that this word, at best, carries some very negative connotations under any circumstance, but particularly when it is used in the context of providing healthcare to people who need it. (DrRich himself was not mentioned in the NPR article. This undoubtedly shows good judgment on the part of Mr. Stein, who has his reputation to think of.)
The most interesting response to Mr. Stein’s questions on “parsimonious” was offered by Dr. Virginia Hood, current president of the ACP. She strongly defended the use of the word, saying, “Parsimonious is a good word in the sense that it means that you use only what’s necessary. I don’t see a particular problem with that. Maybe it has some connotations where people think frugality or being parsimonious is the same as being mean or inadequate. But I don’t think that is the real meaning of that word.”
So the mystery raised by DrRich in his last post is apparently resolved. When the ACP says “parsimonious” it turns out they are not referring at all to the “theory of parsimony” (or Occam’s Razor), the theory which states that when there is more than one explanation for a series of observations, one must always default to the simplest available explanation. It seems a shame that this is not what the ACP was referring to. While it would have been terribly misguided for the ACP to make an unqualified demand that doctors apply the theory of parsimony to all questions that arise in medical practice, at least they would have seemed somewhat sophisticated in doing so. For many academic papers have been written about the theory of parsimony, and some of them border on the esoteric.
But astoundingly, that’s apparently not what the ACP meant at all. It turns out that what they meant was, in fact, parsimonious. Dr. Hood purports to believe that “the real meaning of the word” is “efficient.” But she should know that it is not. According to Roget’s II New Thesaurus, parsimonious is “ungenerously or pettily reluctant to spend money.” Webster’s New World Dictionary gives “stinginess, extreme frugality.” Other sources DrRich has found list similar definitions, such as: excessively unwilling to spend, penny-pinching, miserly, sparing, grasping, tight, close, niggardly, illiberal, mean, avaricious, covetous, rapacious and tight-assed. Only one source even mentioned the word “efficient,” and it was the 15th or 16th meaning. The dictionaries make it clear that being “parsimonious” is not a thing to be admired.
Students of philosophy, religion, and psychology have known, at least since Dante, that a vice is a virtue carried to extremes. The vice of lust is a perversion of the virtue of love. Servility is a perversion of humility. Recklessness is a perversion of courage.
And parsimony (or miserliness, or stinginess, or any of the many synonyms that exist for this very common vice) is a perversion of thrift. We do not celebrate the addled stalker because his vice is rooted in a perverted form of love. We ought not celebrate parsimony because, despite its perversion into something awful, it is based on efficiency.
Notwithstanding Dr. Hood’s protests to the contrary, when the ACP admonishes physicians, as a matter of ethics, to provide healthcare parsimoniously, that is not a good thing.
While Dr. Hood may herself not be a lexicographer, DrRich thinks we can be fairly certain that, for a document like the ACP’s Ethics Manual, before final publication each and every word is carefully parsed, analyzed and considered by a number of astute and highly educated individuals. Indeed, one notes that the lead author of this document is an attorney, and attorneys are notorious for understanding every nuance of every word they allow into written documents. One would assume that this is especially true for a word which is so important to the message that it is being placed in a special call-out box, so nobody will miss it. It is simply not believable that “parsimonious” – which describes a well-known vice – managed to slip into this document inadvertently as a synonym for “efficient,” as Dr. Hood suggests. That explanation, of all the possible explanations, is simply not credible.
So perhaps Dr. Hood misspoke, and “parsimonious” really was referring to the theory of parsimony after all, and she either did not realize this (not being a lexicographer), or simply forgot. The only other credible explanation, which Dr. Hood indignantly denies, is that the ACP actually does mean for doctors to practice medicine parsimoniously – with all its negative connotations – and that her present dissembling is merely dissembling.
As it happens, DrRich has a brief history with Dr. Hood. Two years ago, the Covert Rationing Blog and the ACP Advocate Blog were both named as finalists for a Medical Weblog award in the category of Health Policy and Medical Ethics. So DrRich suddenly found himself in an ethics competition with the very organization that had published the notorious “New Physician Charter on Medical Professionalism,” and thus had destroyed the very foundation of medical ethics. He could not resist the opportunity to publicly challenge the ACP, under the spotlight (and protection) of the Medical Weblog competition, to an open debate on medical ethics.
You can read all about the ensuing exchange here. What may be of some interest for our present purposes is that it was Dr. Hood herself – at the time the Chairperson of the ACP’s Committee on Ethics, Professionalism, and Human Rights – who finally drafted the ACP’s public response to DrRich. And interestingly, in her response (which was heavy on condescension but light on logic) Dr. Hood invoked the need for parsimonious care. So the ACP’s use of this word was not a momentary oversight; instead it has been rolling off their collective tongues for years, as a descriptor for what they consider to be the ideal approach to the practice of medicine.
Another aspect of that Medical Weblog competition between DrRich and the ACP is more to the point at hand, namely, the interesting manner in which the ACP finally beat DrRich out for the award. The way the competition works is that a short list of finalists is determined by a committee of judges, and then for two weeks anyone who is interested can vote for their blog of choice. The voting system allows only one vote per IP address (so if 20 people all vote from their computers tied into a company network, only one vote is counted). During the voting period, a running tally of results is shown to anyone who cares to see it.
Clearly, given the public spectacle DrRich had made regarding the righteousness (or lack of it) of the ACP’s stance on medical ethics, it would have been deeply embarrassing for the ACP to lose this medical ethics contest. So it was probably troubling to that organization when DrRich mounted a substantial lead early on, and held that lead for two weeks, right up until the last three hours before the voting ended, which, as it happened, occurred at midnight on Sunday, February 14. Then, late on Valentine’s night, when most normal people were with their loved ones doing, well, Valentiney things, apparently a large number of ACP members spontaneously rousted themselves from their activities, logged on to their computers, and voted for the ACP – just enough of them to overtake DrRich, and then to maintain a steady 10 – 20 vote lead for the remaining hour or two of the voting period.
DrRich is not relating this story because he is bitter, nor is he complaining. (This blog won the Medical Weblog award the following year, so there is nothing for DrRich to complain about.) Rather, he was and is deeply amused by these events, and he relates this story for a very pertinent reason – namely, for the purpose of illustrating the shortcomings of the “theory of parsimony.”
For what are the possible explanations for the ACP’s stunning last minute victory? One explanation is that, in the waning moments of Valentine’s Day, members of the ACP finally got around to voting. This is of course possible. These are internal medicine specialists, and many of them are the guys (and girls) you knew in college who looked forward to football Saturdays because the library would always be so much quieter. So it is indeed possible that the ACP membership had entered into their iPhones, weeks earlier, a reminder to vote for the ACP at 11:59 PM on Sunday, February 14. Perhaps they figured they would be logged on to their computers at that moment anyway, reading the latest research on the complement cascade.
Another possible explanation is that someone affiliated with the ACP, realizing how deeply embarrassing it would be to lose an ethics contest to a pain in the ass like DrRich, figured out a way to defeat the voting system’s firewall, and to enter the precise number of votes they needed at the last minute in order to gain a victory and save face. We have seen examples in electoral politics, over and over again and perhaps as recently as last Tuesday night in Iowa, that in close contests it is best to withhold a bolus of the votes you control until the last minute, when you know just how many votes you need.
DrRich is not accusing the ACP of anything, of course, as he has no direct proof that they behaved badly – just a series of observations that have more than one possible explanation. But he admits to finding it delicious that a straightforward application of the theory of parsimony – always choosing the simplest explanation for a series of observations – leads us to the conclusion that agents of the ACP apparently cheated in order to win an ETHICS contest.*
*If they actually did this, of course, some would say it would indicate that the ACP has disqualified itself from ever establishing ethical rules for anyone. But actually, it would simply be another illustration of utilitarian ethics, where important ends always justify whatever means are necessary to achieve it.
Since we know beyond doubt that the ACP would never have done such a thing, and that the ACP won that competition fair and square, DrRich has therefore just demonstrated that applying the theory of parsimony, after all, will often enough lead to incorrect conclusions, and therefore the ACP ought not demand that doctors apply it as a matter of course in all questions of life and death.
So either way, whether the ACP’s use of the word “parsimonious” was supposed to indicate that doctors ought to be stingy and miserly in delivering medical care, or whether they were obligating doctors to always apply Occam’s Razor to medical decisionmaking, delivering parsimonious medical care is a very bad idea, and certainly ought not to be an ethical mandate for physicians.
The leadership of the ACP ought to know this. Indeed, Occam’s Razor suggests that they do know this, which would be the simplest explanation for why, when challenged on their choice of the word “parsimonious,” they insist that they mean the one thing that makes no sense whatsoever.
The American College of Physicians published the Sixth Edition of its Physicians Ethics Manual yesterday. Regular readers may find it surprising to hear DrRich say that there is little objectionable in it, and actually much to admire – that is, when it is considered as it is written, as a stand-alone document.
But of course, when it comes to statements of medical ethics in the New Millennium, one cannot rely on the face value of the written word. For the purpose of the modern medical ethicist is to supply a plausible justification for the covert rationing of healthcare. That is, they need to make it ethically justifiable (if not ethically mandatory) for doctors to ration their patients’ healthcare at the bedside. Because statements of medical ethics cannot just come out and say that, ethicists must compose these statements quite artfully, so that when somebody (like DrRich) calls them on it, they can indignantly deny any such thing.
Therefore, DrRich submits, an accurate interpretation of the ACP’s New Ethics Manual requires an exegesis – that is, it requires that we go beneath the actual words, that we explore the derivation of this text, in order to discover its true underlying meaning. Fortunately, this process will be pretty straightforward, and will not require us to have a working knowledge of Latin, Greek or Hebrew. Plain English will do, as long as we keep the true aim of the modern medical ethicist in mind.
Accordingly, we need to begin this exercise by reminding ourselves of what that true aim is. This was probably stated most clearly in a quote DrRich has used before, by Dr. Berwick and his co-author Dr. Troyen Brennan (another ACP ethics maven) in their 1995 book, “New Rules.” To wit: “Today, this isolated relationship [between doctor and patient] is no longer tenable or possible. . . Traditional medical ethics, based on the doctor-patient dyad, must be reformulated to fit the new mold of the delivery of health care. . . The primary function of regulation in health care. . .is to constrain decentralized individualized decision making.”
That is, the primary aim of the new medical ethics is to get doctors to stop focusing on the specific, unique needs of their individual patients, and instead to focus on what is best for society – which means acceding to centralized, collectivized decision making (the opposite of the decentralized, individualized decision making which the ethicists are pledged to constrain). For doctors to do so, of course, will utterly violate the primary ethical precept which the profession has followed for more than two millennia, and so, obviously, if only for the sake of appearance, will require some revision of those ethical precepts to accommodate the new reality.
And that is the program of the modern medical ethicist.
They have been at this for a long time (at least since the early 1990s), and the Sixth Edition of the ACP Ethics Manual – despite its largely benign language and even occasional retrograde pledges to the needs of the individual patient – advances the true aims of the medical ethicists to a new level. DrRich will provide three lines of evidence to support this contention.
in its section on “Professionalism,” the new Ethics Manual defers specifically to a foundational document written by the ACP and published in 2002 entitled, “Medical Professionalism in the New Millennium: A Physician Charter.” That Charter, which DrRich has critiqued in detail, established a new ethical precept which physicians must now follow – and to which they must give equal weight to their ancient duty to the best interests of their patient. That new precept is to social justice – to a just distribution of healthcare resources.
To understand the real import of this new ethical precept – which is introduced in the Charter in a determinedly bland manner – we must do a brief exegesis of the Charter itself. Notably, the first sentence of the Charter, which attempts to explain just why such a new charter on medical professionalism is needed in the first place, says, “Physicians today are experiencing frustration as changes in the health care delivery systems in virtually all industrialized countries threaten the very nature and values of medical professionalism.”
While this sentence obviously expresses the utter frustration doctors were feeling at being coerced – at the time mainly by health insurers – to withhold expensive but potentially useful healthcare services from their patients, the document itself never spells this out. Indeed, after this passionate opening sentence, no reference to any particular frustration is made again. Rather the document immediately retreats into a bland prose, and one looks in vain for the authors to spell out the cause of the dire frustration that demands a restatement of medical professionalism.
But even though the document seems strangely reticent to say what frustration produced the very impetus for its creation, we can rely on the fact that the document must be designed to cure this mysterious frustration (whatever it is), and further, that the only substantial change in the document was an addition to the code of medical ethics, adding the requirement that physicians work for social justice. Making social justice an ethical mandate for individual physicians, one can only surmise, might help relieve some of the guilt (and some of the frustration) physicians feel when they are forced to engage in bedside rationing against their patients.
The blandness of the Charter is intentional, and was added at the last minute to “soften” the blow. In an ACP policy conference held in the summer of 2001, a much more inflammatory draft of this new Charter was presented to the membership for discussion. That penultimate version made the actual intent of the document far more explicit. It said that when making decisions regarding individual patients, doctors must “be aware that the decisions they make about individual patients have an impact on the resources available to others.” In other words, it explicitly instructed bedside rationing. To the dismay of the ethicists who had presented the draft, several ACP members at that conference reacted quite negatively to it. (Who knew that doctors still gave so much weight to ancient, outdated ethical precepts?) Because of the uproar, the language of the document was softened before its official publication. While its import remained entirely unchanged, the document was “blanded-up.” In particular, the sentence explicitly spelling out just what the authors meant by “social justice” was removed. In making their final revision, however, the authors of the Charter managed to overlook the passionate tone of that (suddenly incongruent) opening sentence, and thus left an everlasting clue as to what the document was really intended to do.
To summarize, by the turn of the millennium doctors were being coerced to withhold healthcare from their patients at the bedside, and thus to violate their time-honored primary professional directive. The intent of the 2002 Charter on medical professionalism was to repair the problem (i.e., to cure the “frustration”), not by confronting the forces of evil doing the coercion, but rather, by simply changing medical ethics to make bedside rationing OK. And that’s just what the document did, though only after careful re-editing to make this radical change to medical ethics sound as benign as possible.
By explicitly endorsing the 2002 Charter on medical professionalism, the Sixth Edition of the ACP Ethics Manual thereby endorses healthcare rationing at the bedside – but it does so quietly, at arm’s length, so as not to stir up unwanted passions.
the publication of the new Ethics Manual is accompanied by an editorial written by Ezekiel Emanuel, MD, a celebrated medical ethicist, the brother of Rahm, and a special advisor on health policy to the White House. It is widely believed that Dr. Emanuel will have a lot to say about which medical experts are going to be appointed to Obamacare’s GOD panels (Government Operatives Deliberating) – the panels that will establish the formal “guidelines” to determine which patients will get what, when and how, “guidelines” which doctors will have to follow in every particular, or be subject to fines, loss of profession, and imprisonment.
It is therefore instructive that Dr. Emanuel is effusive in his praise of this new ACP Ethics Manual. He is especially delighted that the authors have placed a statement into a special “call-out” box, so nobody can miss it, demanding that physicians, as an ethical duty owed to society, must practice efficient, parsimonious, and cost-effective healthcare.
Emanuel notes that “These positions on efficiency, parsimony, and cost-effectiveness constitute an important shift, if not in ethics then in emphasis.” Dr. Emanuel need not dissemble. It’s a shift in ethics all right – just look at the title of the document.
In other words, dear reader, we have Dr. Emanuel, one of the Supreme Beings who will be directing the GOD panels, declaring that, thanks to the new ACP Ethics Manual, doctors have now fully accepted the proposition that it is a matter of medical ethics for “cost-effectiveness” – as determined by panels of hand-picked experts – to decide whether their patient will receive a potentially beneficial medical service.
(Judging from Dr. Emanuel’s reaction to their work product, if any of the authors of this new Ethics Manual had hoped their participation might serve as their audition for one of the GOD panels, it appears their strategy might work out just fine.)
the Ethics Manual contains the injunction that doctors practice medicine “parsimoniously.” While Dr. Emanuel is enamored by and delighted with this word, DrRich finds it at least a little disturbing.
One might speculate that by this word the ACP’s medical ethicists mean to say that doctors ought to arrive at a care plan by applying the “theory of parsimony,” best known as Occam’s Razor. If so, they are urging doctors to error.
The theory of parsimony says that when a series of observations has more than one plausible explanation, the simplest of the available explanations should be considered the “best.” This method usually works quite well when one is devising a theory to explain some phenomenon whose explanation is not a matter of dire urgency. So, for instance, any cave man from the Paleolithic Age who was fond of Occam’s Razor would have concluded, from available observational data, that the sun revolves around the earth. This conclusion was wrong, but little harm was done by it. And when it became important for us to get the movements of the heavenly bodies right (for instance, when we decided to send men to the moon), we first took care to collect additional observational data (just to make sure), and thereby we discovered just in time (a mere few hundred years before launch) that, for a million years or so, our original conclusion had been mistaken.
But Occam’s Razor is less well suited for making medical decisions, that is, in cases where current clinical evidence is consistent with more than one explanation. Here, it is likely that with some effort a discoverable, definitive, correct answer could be achieved, and it is at least possible that always choosing the “simplest” possible explanation would lead the doctor to take action (or more likely, to withhold medical services) that would cause the patient to suffer harm. Sometimes the theory of parsimony can be applied to good effect in the practice of medicine; other times it will be a disaster. Deciding when to use it is a matter of medical judgment and medical experience, best decided locally by a specific doctor on behalf of a specific patient.
The theory of parsimony clearly should not be applied as a matter of course to all medical questions, perhaps not even in most medical questions. So it would seem a shame for the ACP’s Ethics Manual to decree (“without qualifiers,” as Dr. Emanuel approvingly notes) that as a matter of medical ethics, doctors must always do so.
But perhaps the authors were not referring to the “theory of parsimony” at all. Perhaps they were just using “parsimonious” as a synonym for “efficient.” If this is the case, their error was more along the lines of a Freudian slip. For “efficient” and “parsimonious” are simply not good synonyms. Better synonyms for parsimonious would include:
Efficient is to parsimonious as fondness is to lust, or as a gentle spring rain is to a deadly deluge. They may be in the same genus, but are of entirely different species.
Since the real synonyms for parsimonious are all quite descriptive of bedside healthcare rationing, DrRich submits that this carefully chosen and strongly praised word is every bit as appropriate to the occasion as Dr. Emanuel indicates. This is EXACTLY how our Central Authority wants doctors to practice medicine – parsimoniously.
the wording of the new ACP Ethics Manual itself may be, with a few notable exceptions, inoffensive. But when we take the time to explore the derivation of this text, when we consider it in light of the overarching program of modern medical ethicists, and in light of the interpretations now being assigned to it by agents of the Central Authority, it is not difficult to discover its true meaning and its true significance. This document helps establish an ethical mandate for doctors to follow centralized clinical directives to the letter, and doctors who fail to comply will be guilty not only of some legalistic violation of “guidelines,” but also of behaving unethically. And almost anyone will tell you that unethical doctors are the lowest form of life; for them no punishment is too harsh, and the tiniest mercy is too kind.
This, of course, is just what we should have expected.
In his last post, DrRich analyzed whether the young Wisconsin doctors who stood out on street corners proudly offering fake “sick excuses” to protesting teachers were engaging in an act of civil disobedience. DrRich respectfully kept an open mind on this question, but after careful deliberation concluded that it is very unlikely that their actions constituted classic civil disobedience as espoused by Thoreau or Gandhi.
Instead, these doctors were, in a professional capacity, lying. They did not lie in any truly malicious way, however. They lied because they have been trained to believe in a higher cause than mere professional ethics, namely, the cause of social justice. They lied in full confidence that telling lies to advance such a noble cause is a natural duty of the medical profession. They never expected to be criticized for it (except perhaps by Rush Limbaugh and sundry teabaggers and the like), and they almost certainly will be stunned into indignant incoherence if they end up actually receiving the full punishments their actions allow.
But what really interests DrRich is the near-perfect silence we have seen from the mainstream news media regarding this sad episode. While it’s easy to find stories about the phony sick excuses all over Fox News and conservative websites, major outlets like the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, CBS and NBC – sources one might expect to express at least some sympathy for these doctors and their work to advance a just cause – have reported next to nothing about it. When a left-leaning mainstream outlet does report on the episode (for instance, this article appearing in the Atlantic), rather than expressing any support for the Wisconsin doctors, they express at least mild dismay. It seems plain to DrRich that the mainstream media wish the whole thing hadn’t happened, and that perhaps their silence might help it go away as soon as possible.
So here we’ve got a small cadre of youthful and idealistic physicians, behaving in a manner entirely consistent with what they’ve just learned during their medical training, and not only are they facing formal investigations and potential punishment, but also the very people and organizations whom they were surely counting on for support have retreated into an embarrassed silence, or worse, criticism.
What gives, DrRich thinks, is the great discomfort being experienced by left-leaning people and organizations by such a blatant, public display of the New Medical Ethics and its ultimate implications. That is, while they don’t actually object to the fact that the doctors were committing professional fraud for the advancement of what passes for social justice, they wish they hadn’t done it out in the open. Calling attention to the fact that doctors will lie so readily might cause folks to want to take a closer look.
And since lying doctors are part of the plan, such scrutiny might turn out to be inconvenient. You see, Dear Reader, whether the payer is a private insurance company or the Feds, a principle mechanism of healthcare cost-cutting is to coerce the doctors to ration healthcare at the bedside. As a result, many more times per day than one would care to think, doctors are being placed into the unfortunate position of deciding, not whether to lie, but to whom to lie. Do they lie to the insurance companies and Medicare (in order to give one of their patients a needed medical service which, according to insurance company rules or government “guidelines,” they may not have)? Or instead, do they lie to the patient (usually committing a lie of omission, in which they fail to tell patients about some needed and available but forbidden medical service)?
The answer is – both. DrRich, as usual, backs up his outlandish generalizations with data:
Item 1: In a survey conducted by the American Medical Association’s Institute for Ethics, published in the April 12, 2000, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, 39% of American doctors admitted that they sometimes or very often manipulated reports to their patients’ health plans so their patients might gain coverage for needed medical care. These manipulations included exaggerating the severity of the patients’ condition, changing the billing diagnosis, or reporting symptoms the patient did not have. And 72% admitted using one of these tactics at least once in the past year. More than a quarter said that gaming the system was necessary in order to provide high quality care to their patients, and 15% asserted that it was ethical.
This survey elicited a deluge of criticism against the cheating doctors. Ethicists called for doctors to stop applying “insular” ethical norms and to begin using the norms that professional ethicists have long established against lying to health plans (which are busily engaged in covert rationing). Similarly, the AMA and the American College of Physicians have published strongly worded statements opposing the manipulation of reimbursement rules. And the federal government has made such “misstatements” to health plans a federal crime, punishable by huge fines, jail terms, and loss of license.
That doctors continue to do this anyway, DrRich has heard some physicians express, reflects that many physicians consider lying to a health plan to be a sin on par with the sin of lying to the SS when they knock on the door to ask if you are hiding a family of Jews in the attic.
Item 2: Another survey, published in the July/August, 2003, issue of Health Affairs, reported that nearly 33% of American doctors admit that they routinely withhold from their patients pertinent information about optimal medical treatments, because they suspect the patients’ health plans won’t cover those treatments. In response to this survey, the American Association of Health Plans, the group representing the very organizations that were pulling out all the stops to make sure that doctors do exactly what this study confirms they are doing, expressed shock at these results, and told the AMA News at the time that AAHP officials “actually find it difficult to believe that that’s going on.” (They found it difficult, no doubt, because they observed just how rapidly spending was still accelerating.) Meanwhile, the authors of the study could only conclude (with seeming surprise) that doctors are “rationing by omission” on their own volition.
These two surveys reveal some of the confusion and frustration being felt by doctors as a result of coercion to withhold medical services, and the guidance they’re getting from their professional organizations as to what to do about those rules. How are they to square those rules and that guidance with their time-honored obligation to always do what’s best for their patients?
So what’s a doctor to do when a patient needs a treatment but they know the health plan won’t pay for it? There are only three choices:
1) Tell the health plan whatever you must in order to get the needed treatment for the patient.
2) Don’t tell the patient about the treatment since they can’t have it anyway.
3) Tell the patient about the treatment they need, and then tell them they can’t have it.
The most truthful thing would be to choose Door Number 3. After all, a patient has a right to know what medical treatment he needs, whether or not he’s allowed to have it. Informing a patient that his insurance won’t pay for the needed treatment gives him useful information. It lets him know that his health plan is not adequate to his needs and gives him an opportunity to respond appropriately to that information. For instance, a patient might appeal to the health plan directly, seek intervention by his local Congressperson, or ask his employer (who is the health plan’s true customer), to intervene on his behalf. He can even raise the funds to pay for the therapy himself (and if he is not a Medicare patient perhaps it will be legal for him to purchase it).
What patients actually do when doctors choose Door Number 3, however, is to beg, demand, threaten, implore, and plead for the doctor to do something to fix things, since after all, it is the doctor who started the problem in the first place by insisting that this forbidden therapy is the only one that will do. So, the moment doctors choose Door 3, they are placed under incredible pressure to go back and choose again – Door Number 1, their patients are communicating to them, is actually the correct choice. This, plus wanting to avoid all the anguish and drama that follows telling the truth, leads doctors who are inclined to lie to health plans (and thus risk angering the entities that determine their ability to make a living, not to mention committing a federal crime), to choose Door Number 1 in the first place. If doctors are not inclined to risk their livelihoods and freedom by deceiving health plans, they will probably simply default to Door Number 2 – rationing by omission.
The above two items reflect the proportion of doctors willing to admit in a survey which group they routinely lie to – health plans or patients. Most of the other doctors, one suspects, would just rather not say.
Item 3: In 2000, the AMA filed an amicus brief with the Illinois Supreme Court on behalf of a Dr. Portes, asserting that doctors have no duty to inform their patients when health plans have given them financial incentives to withhold medical care. Apparently a patient of Dr. Portes died of a heart attack shortly after the doctor allegedly refused to refer him to a cardiologist. As it turned out, the patient’s health plan apparently had agreed to pay the doctor’s medical group 60% of any funds not used on referrals to specialists. A lower court in Illinois had found that Portes had a duty to disclose this financial relationship to patients, since it might clearly impact their interpretation of his medical recommendations, and Portes appealed. In this appeal, the AMA sided with the doctor.
The AMA said in its amicus brief that the obligation imposed on doctors by the lower court amounted to an “insurmountable burden,” since it was hard for doctors to keep track of all the sundry ways that health plans might induce them to behave in this way or that way, and besides, the need to disclose would impinge on the doctor’s valuable time with the patient and therefore disrupt the doctor-patient relationship. Interestingly, the AMA’s own Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs (CEJA) had previously written that, “physicians must assure disclosure of any financial inducements that may tend to limit the diagnostic and therapeutic alternatives that are offered to patients….” In explaining why its amicus brief differed from the opinion of its own Ethics Council, the AMA explained that its CEJA standard was just an ethical one and not a legal one.
So what we have here is: a) A health plan induces doctors to withhold medical care; b) a doctor acts on that inducement; c) as a result, predictable harm comes to a patient; d) after which, the doctor and the AMA declare that he shouldn’t have to inform patients of all relevant information because; e) to do so would harm the doctor-patient relationship.
This is all just too precious for words.
One can easily see how very confusing it has become for doctors to decide just when they must lie, and whom they must lie to.
Obviously, doctors are now in a position where, just to get by, it behooves them to lie repeatedly to either patients, or to insurers, or both. Their ethical obligation to always be straight with the patient has been turned on its head by the new ethical obligation to do what’s right for the collective. In more cases than doctors – or the insurance companies and government health plans which (between them) “own” the doctors lock, stock and barrel – would like to admit, lying has become a way of life for many in the medical profession. It is not something they’re proud of (well, at least the older ones aren’t proud of it). It’s just something that is necessary for survival. Most doctors, to their credit, hate this. It’s one of the reasons so many doctors are so frustrated with their lot.
In any case, this is not a truth to which anyone would like to call the public’s attention. So for those callow youths in Wisconsin to don their white coats and go out to the street corners, in front of the cameras, to commit lie, after lie, after lie, and to do so with such obvious pride, and such obvious confidence that what they were doing was not only right but was expected of them as members of the medical profession – that indeed, they could do no less – was to call unwanted attention to what has become an unfortunate truth about our healthcare system and what it has done to our doctors.
No wonder the mainstream media largely ignored this embarrassing episode. Fortunately, the public (despite the best efforts of Fox News) still has not realized how generalized the problem is. The sooner Fox stops fulminating about it and moves on to whatever the next left-wing travesty turns out to be, the better. And perhaps no permanent harm will yet be done to the public’s perception of the truthiness of the medical profession.
A minor firestorm has erupted regarding those doctors in Wisconsin this week who were handing out fake “sick excuses” to demonstrating teachers, Fox news producers, Andrew Breitbart, and, apparently, anyone else who had some use for one.
Indeed, there has been more outrage about this episode than DrRich would have thought. Conservative commentators, of course, were predictably apoplectic about the sight of these callow youths, preening in their white coats, abusing and debasing the sacred trust which has been granted to them by virtue of their profession. There’s nothing surprising about that. But even most of the more mainstream commentators expressed at least a slight bit of discomfort about the actions these doctors were taking, even if they were doing it for a very good and noble cause.
Only a very few seemed to endorse their actions completely, explaining that these doctors are engaging in classic civil disobedience, and that, by standing on street corners in their white coats repeatedly committing felonies with the cameras whirring, their behavior is every bit as deserving of our approbation as the actions we admire so much of Thoreau or Gandhi. DrRich is open to this explanation.
Civil disobedience, of course, is to a) openly and non-violently disobey a certain law that you consider unjust, b) to admit to the operative authority, upon apprehension, that you intentionally broke the law specifically because you consider it unjust, and finally c) to passively accept whatever punishment the authority hands out to you. These doctors have executed step “a” flawlessly, and DrRich waits with interest to see whether they will successfully complete steps “b” and “c.”
Unfortunately, it seems far more likely to DrRich that these young doctors were not engaging in classic civil disobedience. Rather, they were simply exercising their conviction that there are causes far more important than any old-fashioned and outdated notions of professional integrity, and furthermore, that honoring those higher causes is indeed an inherent part of the more modern, up to date formulation of the medical profession’s ethical obligations. DrRich, obviously refers to the fact that since 2002, the medical profession has formally adopted an obligation to work for the cause of social justice, and has given that obligation equal weight (in writing) and more weight (in practice) than its obligation to individual patients, or to certain other classic obligations of the profession, such as always being truthful in the discharge of one’s professional duties.
And that’s just what these doctors were doing. They were weighing the venial sin of writing fake sick excuses (surely a minor infraction by any objective measure), against the much higher cause of social justice.* In this light, the “right thing to do” simply seemed obvious to them. And so they went out, in full medical regalia, to do it. They did not expect criticism, but rather, they expected praise. And they certainly did not expect to be threatened with punishment.
*DrRich asks his readers to ignore the question of whether the positive feedback loop that has developed between public service unions and public officials, wherein those unions are largely responsible for electing the officials with whom they then engage in “collective bargaining,” actually constitutes social justice, or a subtle form of tyranny. That it is social justice is a fact which Americans are expected to accept at face value, and for the purpose of this commentary (and only for that purpose) let us accept it.
So there was no civil disobedience here, at least, not the classic civil disobedience of Thoreau or Gandhi. These young doctors had no thought of risking their personal freedom, or anything else they hold dear, for a higher cause. They went forth to show their solidarity with The Cause, with every assurance that their actions were entirely consistent with the New Ethics of their profession. That for many Progressives they have become heroes confirms this conviction.
But the moment it occurred to them that not everybody agreed with what they were doing, or understood why they were doing it, or expressed that perhaps there should be repercussions, they had second thoughts. And they did not remain at their stations, bravely flaunting the law, Gandhi-like, until the authorities showed up to drag them away, but rather, once they understood that they might get into trouble, they hightailed it the hell out of there.
So at this point, sadly, DrRich remains doubtful about the civil disobedience angle.
This is the third in a series of articles on End-of-Life Care and Covert Rationing. The first two articles can be found here and here.
In his previous post, DrRich attempted to satirize the lame attempts of certain payers to “inform” certain of their “covered lives” that, among all the wonderful options available to them under their truly comprehensive health plans, the medical service of physician-assisted suicide would be compassionately offered and cheerfully paid for. DrRich even offered, thoughtfully as usual, some free though invaluable advice to payers on how they ought to go about marketing assisted suicide as a cost-saving strategy, and to do so in a far more sensitive and less ham-fisted way than they have managed so far.
If the mark of good satire is that at least some readers will have difficulty discerning whether the satirist is serious or not, then DrRich is feeling genuinely Jonathan Swiftian today. For some of his readers (one of whom e-mailed, “I can’t believe what I just read. This is sick.”) have taken his modest proposal for selling assisted suicide at face value. This is not the first time DrRich has made unfortunate impressions upon readers through his (possibly inept) use of irony. Sadly, it almost certainly will not be the last.
But assisted suicide being such an important and ethically charged topic, DrRich feels obligated to clear things up once and for all. So what follows is DrRich’s honest assessment of the advisability of physician-assisted suicide, in which he will attempt to forgo entirely any satire or irony (though he admits to having great difficulty in controlling his sarcasm).
DrRich believes that physician-assisted suicide is a very, very bad idea. He has two major reasons for this belief. On a purely practical realm, embracing and systematizing physician-assisted suicide under any healthcare system that is actively engaged in rationing (whether overtly or covertly) will almost surely lead to some terrible abuses of the practice. In this regard you can either use your imagination, or read the history of Europe in the first half of the 20th century.
His second objection to physician-assisted suicide is based on a consideration of ethics. DrRich admits to being on shaky ground here because: a) he is not formally trained in ethics, and b) it appears for all the world that those who are formally trained in ethics have universally concluded that physician-assisted suicide is perfectly OK in every way.
Debating with modern medical ethicists, at least if you are merely a layperson, is mostly a losing proposition. This is not because ethicists are intellectually (or even ethically) superior, but rather because they are adept in couching their arguments in arcane twists of logic and webs of jargon that make their arguments difficult if not impossible for the uninitiated to follow. This technique, of course, places novices like DrRich in the position of having little choice but to accept the ethical bottom line without really understanding how the bottom line was reached. It reduces medical ethicists to a priesthood, and medical ethics to received knowledge.
But DrRich maintains that advancing unintelligible ethical arguments is, well, unethical.
So DrRich will now present his understanding of the chain of logic by which modern ethicists justify physician-assisted suicide – and its close cousin, euthanasia. (If any of you actual ethicists out there object to this analysis, and can explain where DrRich is wrong in clear language, DrRich will be all ears. Absent the clear language, though, you can pound salt.)
Modern ethicists argue as follows:
Point 1: Our society has already decided that the autonomy of the individual patient is the overriding ethical consideration in making end-of-life decisions. We formalized this determination when we decided – by overwhelming consensus – that an individual has a right to refuse medical treatment even if that treatment is very likely to save their life. Therefore, individual autonomy is the universally agreed-upon controlling ethical precept.
And in adopting this controlling precept, we have already firmly decided that passive euthanasia – allowing nature to take its course by withholding treatment at the request of the patient – is ethical.
Point 2: There is no ethical distinction between passive euthanasia and active euthanasia. That is, whether we let death occur by withholding effective medical care, or by actually doing something to help death along a bit, we’re taking an action that hastens death either way. Ethically, both of these actions are equivalent. So, once we decide that individual autonomy is the overriding concern, we must also allow for active euthanasia when a patient wishes it.
Point 3: Once active euthanasia is deemed ethical, there can be no further ethical objection to the lesser act of physician-assisted suicide. If it is ethical for a doctor him/herself to bring on the death of a patient who requests it, there can be no objection to doctors preparing the suicide machine and handing the patient the switch.
The striking thing here (to DrRich, at least) is that in establishing the ethical case for physician-assisted suicide, we necessarily also establish – as a veritable pre-condition – the ethical case for physician-provided euthanasia. Whether the patient says, “Help me to take my own life,” or “Take my life for me,” modern medical ethics supports the physician who replies, “Roll up your sleeve.”
For those who don’t see a problem with this, DrRich refers you to the Dutch system, where, in full accordance with modern medical ethics, the rules permit both physician-assisted suicide and active euthanasia for patients who request it. Reports on the results of the Dutch system (reports which both sides have used to bolster their respective opinions on either the glories or the travesties of such a system) do point out one striking finding – hundreds of times each year, acts of *involuntary* euthanasia are occurring. That is, patients are being killed under the Dutch healthcare system at the hands of their doctors, without their explicit permission. All these patients, it is claimed, are being euthanized for entirely humane reasons.
What do our friends the medical ethicists have to say about such involuntary euthanasia? Well, it turns out that it’s OK with many if not most of them. Ethicists don’t like to tell us that their chain of logic doesn’t end with Point 3. But once we make the principle of individual autonomy the overriding consideration in determining end-of-life ethical issues, the same chain of logic takes us directly to Point 4.
Point 4: Since honoring the ethical precept of individual autonomy makes voluntary euthanasia available for patients with intractable suffering, it would be unethical to withhold the same benefit from suffering patients who are too incapacitated to give their permission. Their incapacity should not restrict them from a good that is available to others, for to do so would be discriminatory and inhumane. To cure this problem, the boon of active euthanasia can and must be performed, even without the patient’s explicit permission, in incapacitated patients whom “reasonable people” would agree are suffering too much. Therefore, involuntary active euthanasia is also ethical.
This conclusion, of course, leaves us in a place where others (i.e., “reasonable people,” like doctors or other agents of the Central Authority) can decide for an individual what constitutes intractable suffering, and further, can decide when such an individual is simply too incompetent to know that euthanasia is the best thing for them. Some of you, of course (hello, ethicists!) think this is just a fine idea. Most apologists for the Dutch system apparently do.
But DrRich maintains that under our system of covert healthcare rationing, where doctors are under extreme pressure to do the bidding of the third party payers (private insurers and the government) who determine their professional viability, and where the payers are under extreme pressure to reduce cost, and have already displayed in numerous ways their willingness to permit suffering and death among their subscribers in order to do so, then opening the door for physician-assisted suicide (let alone physician-administered euthanasia, whether the patient requests it or not), would inevitably lead to some nasty abuses, and would ultimately serve to undermine our civil society. DrRich is too politically correct to use the “other” N-word, but he will take this opportunity to remind his readers that such a thing has already happened, in what recently had been perhaps the world’s most cultured and educated society, within the memory of millions of living people.
DrRich believes that the principle of individual autonomy is vitally important, and indeed it is the foundation of American culture. However, no single ethical principle, no matter how important, can be allowed to overrule all other ethical principles in all other circumstances. By nature, ethical precepts are often in conflict, creating what is called an ethical dilemma. And (DrRich humbly submits) it is supposed to be the job of ethicists to help us work through those ethical dilemmas, to find the right balance between competing principles, and not simply declare that no dilemma actually exists, because Ethical Precept A is the only one we need to pay attention to.
Individual autonomy is critically important to American culture – and the fact that we must fight to preserve individual autonomy in the face of covert healthcare rationing is indeed the underlying message of this blog – but in no other aspect of our culture do we let it absolutely rule. The autonomy of individuals needs to be checked, and we indeed limit it. This is the fundamental reason that governments are necessary in the first place.
The reason we have laws (supposedly) is to make sure that the behavior of individuals acting in their own interest, especially those who have accrued power (for instance, by accumulating great wealth, by acquiring large weapons, or by becoming heads of state), does not abrogate the natural rights of other individuals. Indeed, most of the political fights we have – between Democrats and Republicans or progressives and conservatives – are to determine where to place those limits, on individuals and on the collective, to best encourage a robust society that honors individual autonomy but that also encourages reasonably equal opportunities for individual fulfillment (i.e., “happiness.”) The main purpose of our public discourse, then, is to find the right balance between the rights and needs of individuals and the rights and needs of society as a whole.
So for ethicists to say, “Individual autonomy is all there is to it, and we have no choice but to follow that principle to wherever it may lead us,” is not only completely irresponsible and dangerous, it also flies in the face of our culture’s history and our everyday experience. The cost to society not only should but must be taken into account as we consider institutionalizing physician-assisted suicide (let alone voluntary or involuntary euthanasia). In DrRich’s opinion, ethicists who argue that we need not consider the cost to society in making end-of-life policy have declared themselves unworthy of the title and they ought to be completely ignored.
The cost to our society of institutionalizing and systematizing physician-assisted suicide, especially while we are still covertly rationing healthcare, would be severe and potentially lethal. Within the next decade or two, if things do not change, we likely will be facing cost pressures emanating from our healthcare system that will gravely threaten the survival of our culture. With an existential threat such as this, can we really refrain from slowly transforming the request for assisted suicide from an option to a duty? Can the Central Authority really stay its hand when it has the capability of directing its agents at the bedside to perform euthanasia on unfortunate (and unproductive) citizens who are too “incapacitated” to understand it’s the only thing to do?
DrRich, who opened this post with a promise to avoid irony, apologizes. For when all is said and done, it is deeply ironic that by steadfastly clinging to the ethical precept of individual autonomy at the end of life, within in a paradigm of covert healthcare rationing, we will very likely end up by completely devaluing the inherent worth of individuals.
At least until we solve the fiscal problems within our healthcare system, we simply should not embrace assisted suicide – no matter what we may think of the ethics of the act itself – and we should fight efforts to make it acceptable. The cost to our society would be far too high.
If people want to commit suicide and if medical ethicists insist that assisted suicide is OK, then let the ethicists do the assisting. DrRich has relatively little to say against ethicist-assisted suicide. But, at least as long as covert rationing is the chief operating principle of the American healthcare system, for the love of God keep the doctors out of it.
This is the second in a series of articles on End-of-Life Care and Covert Rationing. The first article can be found here.
In the summer of 2008, the Oregon Health Plan (the Medicaid plan in Oregon) injudiciously sent a letter to lung-cancer patient Barbara Wagner denying coverage for the expensive chemotherapy her doctor had recommended, and offering instead to cover palliative care “including doctor-assisted suicide.”
Despite the fact that there were plenty of distractions at the time (including a presidential election and the world’s economy on the brink of Armageddon), that letter unleashed a firestorm of public outrage. (If you have forgotten the outrage, simply Google the search terms “Barbara Wagner” and “suicide.”) Indeed, the outrage was sufficient to penetrate even the dulled sensibilities of the Oregon Health Plan’s executives. One Jim Sellers, a spokesman for the Oregon Health Plan, admitted to ABC News that “the letter to Wagner was a public relations blunder and something the state is ‘working on.’”
It is clear that the Oregon Health Plan executives were at least a little blindsided by the general reaction to their ham-handed denial letter. Denial letters, after all, are a routine activity, and they always list (as an aid to the patient) services which the third party payer judges to be reasonable alternatives to the denied care. While in this case the denied service which Ms. Wagner sought offered some reasonable hope for prolonged survival, and the service being held out by the Oregon Health Plan as an alternative (to say the least) did not, that’s really not so much different from the content of more “routine” denial letters. The difference is one of degree, and not of substance. So, Oregon Health Plan executives must surely have wondered, “What’s the big deal?”
One must try to be understanding of such insensitivity. It is a fundamental task of health plans – whether run by Medicare, Medicaid, or private insurance companies – to deliver unpleasant news to people whose lives are at stake, and it is normal (even necessary) for those who are charged with this task either to grow thick skin or to develop the traditional indifference of bureaucrats. It is perfectly predictable that such thick skin or indifference might dull one’s ability to discern subtle differences in degree among various denials of services, subtle differences that might call for more artful phraseologies than those employed in this instance by the Oregon Health Plan. The failure to recognize the need for a more artful denial letter, Mr. Sellers appeared to say, was the only problem in the case of Ms. Wagner. The solution, he therefore suggested, is certainly not a substantive change in any policy, but better public relations.
Those who ran the Oregon Health Plan must have been particularly disheartened to learn that even vocal proponents of physician-assisted suicide immediately began criticizing their ill-considered denial letter. To so blatantly juxtapose the reality of healthcare rationing with the “option” of assisted suicide seriously undermines the chief argument advanced publicly by the end-of-life movement, namely, that assisted suicide is merely an individual autonomy play, and is not in any way a cost-saving tool.*
*Preserving the ethical precept of individual autonomy is the basis upon which modern utilitarian ethicists always build their defense of doctors ending the lives of their patients, whether it be by physician-assisted suicide, passive euthanasia, active euthanasia, and even involuntary active euthanasia. DrRich will elaborate on this ethical defense in a future posting.
In other words, whether or not you embrace physician-assisted suicide, everyone seems to agree that offering it up as a covered medical service at the same time you are denying potentially life-prolonging therapy is both insensitive and unseemly.
And so – as a public service to those in the government and the private sector alike who are running healthcare organizations and thus who are (as a matter of course) severely challenged in trying to understand simple human emotions, to patients like Ms. Wagner who may suffer true physical harm by exposure to such institutional callousness, and to the rest of us who simply would appreciate not being confronted so blatantly by the dark abyss that underlies our healthcare system – DrRich offers the Central Authority and private insurers some friendly advice on the right way to sell physician-assisted suicide.
1) Don’t Seem So Anxious.
Sure it’s easy to get excited about physician-assisted suicide. All you need to do is look at your own data. Whether you are trying to make ends meet over at CMS, or running a private health plan, it’s likely that a huge proportion of your spending goes to patients who are in the last year of life. Enticing these end-of-lifers to choose assisted suicide (which you can accomplish in a sufficiently tasteful way for about $100) is such an attractive proposition that it’s indeed become very hard to make yourself appear reasonably circumspect about it. At the very least, if you run an organization like the Oregon Health Plan, where assisted suicide is “available” at no additional cost to patients who choose it, it’s difficult not to push the idea when the opportunity arises. Otherwise how can you be sure the patients will know all their options for end-of-life care?
But doing even that much is a mistake. If you don’t believe that, simply look at the small firestorm the Oregon Health Plan created with their straightforward and helpful “reminder” letter to Ms. Wagner. As a result of the Oregon Health Plan’s inept attempt at informing patients of their options, neighboring states that appeared ready to pass their own assisted-suicide laws immediately had second thoughts about it. It should now be clear even to health plan bureaucrats that seeming overly interested in assisted suicide, or even mentioning the option to patients (at least while simultaneously denying potentially lifesaving therapy) is a very counterproductive idea.
A much more subtle approach is required.
2) Publicly Disavow Any Interest In Assisted Suicide.
Think about Tom Sawyer whitewashing the picket fence. Ole Tom didn’t get all his friends to paint that fence for him by asking for their help, or by overtly trying to sell or cajole them on the idea. Instead, he got them to do the job by pretending he wasn’t the least bit interested in having them do it, by ignoring them altogether, and making himself seem completely absorbed in the delightful task. By the time Tom was done, his friends were begging for a turn, and even giving him wondrous gifts (such as dead cats on a string) to bribe him for a chance to participate.
What you need to do is pretend that encouraging assisted suicide – even if it’s a covered service that patients ought to be made aware of – is the farthest thing from your mind. Instead, you are completely invested in and insistent upon providing full-service end-of-life care, with all the bells and whistles and no holds barred; and – while patients of course have the option to exercise their individual autonomy as they see fit – you take great pride in squeezing every last instant of life out of those elderly, used-up, chronically ill bodies that present themselves in your ICU, no matter what the cost to the patient and family in terms of pain, suffering, humiliation and anguish. It is your mission to stave off death to the bitter end, come what may, and you’re proud of it.
3) Have Somebody Else Push It.
In the meantime, clear the path for agencies and interest groups which are dedicated to the end-of-life movement. There are plenty of them out there. Have them do the selling for you.
Make sure they have access to your patients and patients’ families, especially in the ICU setting. Allow them space for educational displays; provide them some private space where they can talk to interested patients and families; see that hospital social workers are aware of and will enable their activities. In the meantime, make it clear that you do not endorse or encourage their efforts, and indeed wish they would go away, but you are providing such groups with access in your dedicated interest of full transparency, and your commitment to patient choice. If patients choose to avail themselves of such information, you will do nothing to stop them.
4) Make the Advantages To Assisted Suicide Seem Real.
There’s no need for you to talk up the advantages of assisted suicide – let the end-of-life proselytizers do the talking for you. All you have to do is to make their arguments seem accurate. The great part is, that’s just a matter of maintaining business as usual.
The end-of-life zealots will tell patients that assisted suicide is a way of asserting some measure of control over the dying process, of holding on to some level of personal dignity at the very end. So simply make sure your end-of-life care continues robbing patients of any semblance of dignity and control.
They’ll tell patients that assisted suicide will end pain and discomfort and suffering when all hope of recovery is gone. So simply continue with inadequate pain control** and half-hearted comfort measures, and keep the ICU as hectic, loud, scary and impersonal as possible.
**Maintaining inadequate pain control will continue as a matter of course as long as the Central Authority continues sending the DOJ after the occasional pain-management doctor. Whether the target physician is actually engaging in analgesic excesses is unimportant to the goal of making any American doctor afraid of aggressively controlling their patients’ pain, for fear of becoming a target themselves.
The end-of-life proponents will tell the patients themselves that assisted suicide will finally bring comfort to their long-suffering family and friends, whose lives have been “so disrupted by your prolonged illness.” And make sure all those family and friends continue suffering long, by keeping those ICU waiting rooms hot, cramped, noisy, uncomfortable and smelly.
You get the idea. Simply make sure the arguments of the end-of-life proponents have teeth. You’re good at that.
5) Tell Patients to Consult With Their Doctors First.
That’s right. Refer patients to their doctors, their supposed personal advocates, the selfsame individuals you yourself have long since fatally compromised (by grabbing control of their individual professional viability). Assuming you have placed sufficient cost-cutting pressures on doctors, then their willingness to encourage (or at least not discourage) assisted suicide will be substantial. So when patients do consult with their doctors, the doctors will not undermine your subtle efforts, but will become your partners in convincing those approaching end-of-life to just be reasonable.
6) Make Physician-Assisted Suicide Legal, But Not Reimbursable.
You’re going for the Botox model here. You do not want physician-assisted suicide to be merely another hush-hush medical procedure, conducted quietly and almost secretly in a typical doctor’s office, so that people can pretend it doesn’t exist. Rather, you want to establish it as something that’s front and center, something people will want and ask for and go out of their way to seek. You want to encourage doctors to establish inventive business models for assisted suicide, just as the dermatologists have done with their Botox clinics.
Accomplishing this, of course, will require assisted suicide to be made legal everywhere (and not just in Oregon and a few other progressive states), but at the same time will require you to NOT make it a reimbursable medical service. For once it’s made reimbursable it will become subject to typical Medicare price controls, which thus will keep prices high and limit innovation. And in this once instance, you will not want to limit innovation.
Just think of the possibilities: One envisions physician-assisted suicide becoming established as a “life cycle event” like a wedding or Bar Mitzvah, where the right atmosphere, the right spirituality, and the right tone come together to create an unforgettable, uplifting experience for everyone. Some assisted suicides will take place in a doctor’s office, of course, but why not in a place of worship, a favorite city, a resort, a mountain top, a rocky coast – a casino? Why not allow the prospective decedent to actually hear the eulogies and experience the tearful tributes before actually engaging (ritually) in the Act? Why not partner with the new deathcare industry you will be unleashing (talk about job creation!) to wrap this final “healthcare service” into a comprehensive package along with funeral services, grave sites and headstones, elaborate obituaries, and full coverage on Facebook, Twitter, and UTube? Why not engage American media to celebrate the event with a new mode of reality programming (one that is sure to garner a massive share of viewers)? Why not, at last, GUARANTEE every American their 15 minutes of fame (even if it’s their last 15 minutes)? Why not convert what is today an antiseptic, impersonal and frightening process into one that makes everybody say, “Yes! That’s the only way to go!”
The beauty is that this sort of model will convert what is today, at best, merely the option for assisted suicide into something that’s expected – a true destination event, a natural part of life. Indeed, not opting for assisted suicide, at a certain point in one’s life, will come to be seen as unusual, unreasonable, greedy and selfish. And when granny begins to spend more time in a doctor’s office or (worse) in a hospital, where frequent visitation is expected and other family inconveniences are generated, some loving grandchild will pat her precious wrinkled hand, and say, “Granny, you know, it’s getting to be about that time. Wouldn’t a last weekend in Vegas be just the thing?”
So, if you play your cards right – passively encouraging the end-of-life movement in its effort to spread the word, while making the alternative (i.e., not committing suicide) as nasty and foul an option as possible, and also while coercing doctors and encouraging families to view assisted suicide as the most advantageous modus exodus one could ever imagine – well, the “right” to assisted suicide will shortly become the expectation and even the duty for assisted suicide.
If you who run government or private health plans will just follow DrRich’s simple program, you will have accomplished all this without seeming crass and self-serving, as you most certainly do each time you send somebody a letter like the one you sent the unfortunate Ms. Wagner.
This is the first in a series of articles on End-of-Life Care and Covert Rationing. The second article can be found here.
It is easy to have missed it, because it went by so quickly.
On January 1, the White House announced a new policy that would have paid doctors for discussing end-of-life planning during their Medicare patients’ annual “wellness visit.” Under this policy, physicians would be paid to encourage their patients to establish an advance directive, which would guide medical care if the patient became incapacitated from illness, and could no longer make medical decisions for him/herself.
But on January 5, the new policy was suddenly revoked. It was revoked, CMS lamely explained, because it had not been implemented using the correct process. But, as anyone would know who watched Congress make Obamacare the law of the land, this could not possibly have been the real reason.
The real reason, of course, has to do with the firestorm this new policy threatened to unleash, just as the House of Representatives was about to be taken over by the cretinous opposition party.
As regular readers will recall, the Obamacare bill originally included similar language on advance directives. Physicians were supposed to urge their patients, repeatedly if necessary, to establish advance directives, and their success in extracting advance directives from their patients was to be one of the “performance measures” by which doctors would be judged to be in good or bad standing with the Central Authority.
But then Sarah Palin said “death panels,” and a furor ensued. The provision on advance directives was quickly removed from the Obamacare legislation, as if Congress was admitting that Ms. Palin had been correct and they had been caught out.* Similarly, the effort last month to reinstate the provision failed to stick for fear of criticism at a bad time.
*The original advance directive provision in Obamacare, of course, had nothing whatsoever to do with “death panels,” since there are no panels of any sort involved in establishing advance directives. Rather, the entities that some might call death panels, and which DrRich has chosen to call GOD panels (Government Operatives Deliberating) – that is, panels of distinguished experts that will determine, by means of “guidelines,” which patients will get what, when and how – remain fully operative within Obamacare.
DrRich has nothing against advance directives, and indeed, thinks they are a good idea – in concept, at least. Advance directives allow patients to establish beforehand, usually by a written document, what kinds of medical treatment they would or would not want should they fall victim to a serious, life-threatening illness that leaves them unable to express their wishes. Advance directives are supposed to work by providing guidance to their physicians, who, in their fiduciary capacity, are charged with acting in the patient’s best interest.
A well-constructed advance directive allows patients to choose to spare themselves from demeaning, undignified, painful or otherwise undesirable medical procedures and treatments, should they become incapacitated at a later date. “Well-constructed” implies that the advance directives are clearly and concisely written, that they honor the ethical and legal norms approved by society, and that they provide the physician with clear guidance.
But it is more difficult to write a “well-constructed” advance directive than might at first meet the eye. The major problems are two-fold: Advance directives often express imperfect knowledge, and they are often imperfectly expressed. These limitations mean that in appropriately exercising an advance directive, often the physician cannot follow them to the letter, but must interpret them according to the circumstances at hand.
A healthy and relatively robust individual cannot always know how he or she will feel years into the future, when illness strikes and it is time to exercise an advance directive. Every doctor has seen critically ill patients who, despite having advance directives to the contrary, unhesitatingly choose to be attached to a ventilator when the time comes, for instance, rather than face certain imminent death. So experienced doctors know that advance directives do not always indicate what patients will actually choose to do when the time to make a choice is upon them.
They also know that, while conscious patients have the opportunity to repeal their advance directives, unconscious or incapacitated patients do not.** So, in exercising an advance directive, the conscientious physician interprets that directive in light of many other factors, such as, her personal knowledge of the patient, the opinions of family as to what the patient would want done, and the chances of a long-term recovery if the therapy being considered is used. Then she will negotiate with responsible family members an approach that appears to meet the patient’s presumed desires.
**Conscious patients can repeal their advance directives in theory. DrRich has witnessed actual doctors, however, arguing vociferously against using a medical therapy that a sick patient now desperately wants, because years ago the patient signed an advance directive expressing aversion to that therapy.
Therefore the advance directive in many cases is an important part of the decision-making process, but it is not the only part. The appropriate use of an advance directive requires the doctor to behave as a true patient advocate, to selflessly place the desires expressed in the directive in context with everything else that might affect the patient’s true and current wishes, and then make a recommendation that, to the best of his or her ability, honors those wishes.
Unfortunately, doctors can no longer act primarily as their individual patient’s advocate. Indeed, physicians are officially enjoined (by the New Ethics formally adopted by their own professional organizations) to give the needs of society at least equal consideration. And so, as has demonstrably happened with other “guidelines” in medicine, it is inevitable that advance directives will be reduced to a legal edict, which must be followed to the letter if the physician wishes to remain clear of the Department of Justice.
The likelihood that there will be no room for interpretation means that constructing just the right kind of advance directive for yourself – one that will be precisely suitable to any contingency that may occur – has become extremely difficult. If you get the details just a little bit wrong for the circumstances that actually arise, the price you pay may be very heavy. It would be better to have no advance directive at all than to have one that is misleading or ambiguous. Advance directives must be written with extreme care, and only after long, thoughtful consideration.
That is not how the government would have it, however. For many years now, the Feds, under the Patient Self-Determination Act, requires hospitals to inform patients about advance directives at the time of every hospital admission, and to invite them to sign one. To say this is a less than ideal time to implement an advance directive would be something of an understatement. Asking a patient to sign an advance directive at the time of hospital admission, often by including it in the pile of routine and mind-numbing legalistic documents which patients must sign if they want to receive medical care, and often with no more guidance than that provided by the admissions clerk (who might explain, “This tells the doctors you don’t want to be kept alive on a machine like a vegetable,”) tells us something about whether the true motive for advance directives is to protect the patient’s autonomy – or to reduce costs.
Having the discussion in a doctor’s office these days, sadly, might not be much better. The Central Authority knows that squeezing what really ought to be at least a 30-minute discussion into a 10-15 minute office visit already packed with Pay for Performance requirements (while providing the added threat of punishment if the physician fails to extract an advance directive from the patient), will yield, at best, a signature on a boiler-plate document.
But despite the slap-dash method by which such a document may be implemented, it is a document whose language – when the time comes – will be exercised with all the legalistic exactitude of a contract attorney by any doctor who knows what’s good for him.
DrRich thinks that Americans are right in being suspicious of the big push they are seeing to urge advance directives upon them. Invoking “death panels” in this regard is utterly inappropriate, but the end result will suffice. It is good that we have all been given pause.
Still, the concept of advance directives is a good one, and DrRich thinks most Americans might do well to have one. Despite the damage that is being done to them, DrRich thinks advance directives can be salvaged. To this end, DrRich suggests several steps we can all take in executing an advance directive that will actually do what we want it to do:
1) Don’t be pressured into implementing an advance directive by anybody whose career depends on keeping the Central Authority happy. Unfortunately, this likely includes your doctor if you are not paying your doctor yourself.
2) Don’t sign a boiler-plate document. These likely will have been drafted with the interests of the Central Authority in mind, with the help of very smart lawyers, and when these documents are called into use in all probability they will be interpreted for the convenience of the Central Authority.
3) Try to keep your advance directive from showing up in an electronic medical record. Write it yourself, and store it where your loved ones can find it when they need it. Give a copy to your spouse, your children, and perhaps (if you have a direct-pay doctor who works only for you) your physician. This way, since your advance directive will not be immediately available to hospital personnel if you are suddenly incapacitated, no unfortunate and irreversible decisions regarding the aggressiveness of your medical care can be made until your loved ones are notified.
4) Write your advance directive as a general guideline, with as few specifics regarding particular types of medical care as possible. You should assume that any type of treatment you mention in a negative light will be withheld under any and all circumstances, including circumstances you may not be aware of in which you would want that treatment.
5) You are not writing your advance directive for the doctors (it is most tragic that we can no longer trust doctors in this regard!); you are writing it to help your loved ones make the right decisions for you, perhaps despite the doctors. So your goal should be to clarify your general desires for your loved ones. Discuss your advance directive with your loved ones after you have written it, and ideally, before you have written it. Your written words will remind them of your wishes when the time is right.
Lest you think, Dear Reader, that DrRich is merely being sarcastic here (and why would anyone think so?), he is not. DrRich himself has an advanced directive that attempts to follow these rules. The document is stored at home with his important papers. Mrs. DrRich knows where to find it, and knows DrRich’s general feelings regarding these matters. With the guidance he has provided, DrRich trusts her and his children to make these important decisions for him. For anyone who is interested, DrRich’s advance directive is reproduced, in its entirety, at the end of this post. (The general language, which has been adapted and revised by DrRich for his own use, was originally suggested to him by a good friend who is a superb internal medicine practitioner.)
So. Advance directives are a very good idea, but unfortunately, have been identified by the Central Authority as a potentially powerful cost-cutting tool. Even before Obamacare, certain HMOs were refusing to reimburse hospitals or doctors that provided medical care that seemed to go against specific language contained in an advance directive. That, of course, was child’s play. Now that the Central Authority has gotten hold of them, advance directives will likely be treated the same way as other guidelines are now treated in medicine, that is, as edicts, and thus as vehicles for the criminal prosecution of medical personnel who deign to “interpret” them.
This means that if you wish to take advantage of the benefits which advance directives can provide, you will have to proceed very, very carefully.
DrRich’s Advance Directive:
If I am able to communicate my wishes by any means whatsoever, then I wish to make my own decisions regarding my own healthcare. If, despite my ability to communicate, my condition makes it inconvenient to fully inform me of my situation and all my treatment options, then until such time as it becomes sufficiently convenient to do so, I want everything possible to be done to sustain my life and effect a recovery.
In the event of an incapacitating illness in which I cannot communicate, the basic guideline initially should be to do everything possible to sustain my life and effect a recovery.
After a reasonable period of time (in general, I would consider a week to be reasonable) if no progress has been made in the recovery of my mental function, and the likelihood of mental recovery is judged to be small, then withdrawal of life-sustaining care should be strongly considered. To help my wife and/or children with this decision, I would like to have an evaluation by a neurologist to help clarify the prognosis.
If improvement in my mental status has been made, then efforts to sustain my life and affect a recovery should be continued.
If at any point in my care there is a period of at least two weeks in which I am persistently unable to carry out meaningful communications sufficient to make my own wishes known (in the opinion of my family members and the neurologist), and the likelihood of mental recovery is judged to be small, then I would consider the withdrawal of life-sustaining care to be a blessing.
In Durango, Florida the week before Christmas, the FBI arrested fugitives Roger Gamlin, 62, and his wife Peggy, 54, at Mercy Regional Medical Center after a doctor determined their real identities through Roger’s pacemaker.
Wanted by the feds for 2 1/2 years on suspicion of embezzling millions of dollars from their south Florida title company, Roger and Peggy had been living quiet and unassuming lives as Ron and Nancy Jenner in Durango.
Then Peggy brought Roger to Mercy Medical Center after he developed a nose bleed that would not stop. The hospital (in accordance with the sage advice of its attorneys) is not saying exactly what happened next. But we know that Roger’s true identity was determined through his pacemaker, and the FBI quickly showed up to arrest him and his wife. Roger and Peggy waived their rights to an identification and detention hearing, were placed into custody, and will be transported to south Florida to face embezzlement charges.
The reason this story made the newswires, of course, is because the fugitives were identified through a pacemaker. Pacemakers can be electronically scanned to reveal information about the patient’s cardiac condition. Every implanted pacemaker also stores information that identifies the patient. That’s apparently what did Roger and Peggy in.
The “angle” that has made this a news story is the pacemaker angle. And yes, it’s true that when you receive a pacemaker or an implantable defibrillator, it’s like receiving a subcutaneous electronic identity chip, like the one you have in your dog. Anyone with the right scanner can find out who you are. So if you plan to become a fugitive from the law, it is best not to have one of these. (Alternately, get your pacemaker AFTER you change your identity, so that it matches with your alias.)
But really, you don’t need to have an implanted medical device in order for a hospital to learn your true identity. A medical facility could find out who you are any time they wanted, by surreptitiously obtaining DNA samples, for instance, or – for extremely rapid identification – dusting your drinking cup for fingerprints and doing a computer match. DrRich doubts whether such things are occurring today. His point is that it could happen whenever somebody wanted it to happen, whether you have a pacemaker or not.
To DrRich, the interesting part of the storyline only peripherally involves the pacemaker. The real story is this:
Now, that’s actually a pretty interesting story.
(And people wonder why the Central Authority is so hot to have electronic medical records.)
But even that is not the most interesting angle. What DrRich wants to know – the angle he would explore if he were writing this up for the Sunday Times – is: What was the doctor thinking?
You’re an ER doc. A guy comes in with a bad nosebleed. You stabilize the bleeding, but the guy looks pretty pasty and you’re worried about his heart, so you interrogate his pacemaker. (Here’s the first red flag. For an ER doc, interrogating a pacemaker – not a routine procedure in most emergency rooms, and one which yields only sparse information about the status of a patient’s heart – is generally pretty far down the list of things to do. Could it be that Roger is acting suspiciously, and you want to find out whether he is who he says he is? If so, you are no longer acting as a doctor, but as an agent of the government.) In any case, whether intentionally or not, you learn that the patient has checked in under an alias.
So now what do you do?
There are some things you need to consider as you decide what to do. First, you have established a doctor-patient relationship with Roger, which binds you to confidentiality – unless you believe Roger is an imminent threat to himself or others. But simply using an alias does not constitute an imminent threat to anyone. Besides, using an alias is not necessarily illegal. Samuel Clements used one, and so do most people who work in Hollywood. And how many times has Barack Obama changed the name he answers to?
Second, you yourself might get into trouble if you look into the matter. For instance, if Roger were an illegal alien and you took it upon yourself to escalate the matter of false identity, you could get into serious trouble. After all, the U.S. Attorney General has determined that an Arizona law is unconstitutional which would permit police officers to investigate the actual identities of suspected illegals who are detained for other offenses. And you are not even a police officer, and Roger is not being detained for an offense, but has come in to seek medical assistance. Furthermore you are well aware that if a suspected illegal alien shows up in your ER, you are supposed to treat him/her without asking any questions about identity or legal status.
But you determine that Roger does not look Hispanic (or Arabic) – a determination that by any reasonable definition would constitute racial profiling – and so is not likely to be a member of a protected group.
DrRich thinks you are thinking like this: “This man is obviously using an alias – so what is my obligation here? In the old days my obligation would be to honor the confidentiality of my patient, who, for possibly very legitimate reasons, has altered his identity. But it’s not the old days. Now, I’m obligated to do what’s best for the collective, and only secondarily what’s best for this patient. I suspect the collective would like to know about this guy, to check him out. It’s a little risky – what if he turns out to be an illegal from, say, Argentina? A lot of people from Argentina look European. But that risk seems small, and if he is some kind of fugitive from the law I would be doing a great service to my overlords.”
So you rat him out.
We indeed have come a long way. Not only have our doctors apparently lost their scruples, but we also appear to have already arrived at a place where medical records can relatively seamlessly interface with other federal databases. Once medical records become fully electronic, patients needing medical aid will have a lot to consider. Are you an embezzler on the lam? Are you behind in paying your income taxes? Are you a parking ticket scofflaw? Do you have erectile dysfunction, or venereal disease? (These latter conditions cannot get you arrested – as of yet – but we know that all databases controlled by the government, no matter how “confidential,” also interface seamlessly with WikiLeaks, and so the publication of lists of patients with embarrassing medical conditions always remains a possibility.)
Once again, DrRich marvels at the fact that, soon, the only safe way to get your healthcare will be through the black market.