In prior posts DrRich introduced his readers to Ezekiel Emanuel, MD, PhD, brother of Rahm, eminent medical ethicist, and one of the White House’s chief advisers on healthcare policy. Dr. Emanuel was one of the authors of that recent paper in the Annals of Internal Medicine which admonished American physicians that resistance is futile. He has also famously called upon American physicians to abandon the obsolete medical ethics expressed in the Hippocratic Oath.
The reason the ideas (and pronouncements) of Dr. Emanuel are important is that he presumably will be a major “decider” in determining who will serve on the GOD panels, and how those panels will operate to advance his (and Mr. Obama’s) program of healthcare reform.
So, before we leave Dr. Emanuel to his important duties, let us take one more pass at the views he has expressed, regarding the direction of American healthcare, which we can expect to see manifested in government guidelines and policies in the coming years.
In particular, and especially relevant to the subject of this blog, let us view how Dr. Emanuel would direct the rationing of our healthcare.
His ideas in this regard were probably spelled out most clearly in an article Dr. Emanuel co-authored in The Lancet, in January, 2009, which proposed a system of healthcare rationing based on what he and co-authors call the “complete lives system.” Most notably, the complete lives system proposes rationing healthcare on the basis of age, in a way that frankly “discriminates against older people” (The Lancet, Vol 373, p 429).
While Emanuel has taken a lot of heat from the right wing for espousing such a thing, his argument for doing so is unique and thoughtful, and DrRich finds it worthy of more careful consideration.
First, we should note that the outrage we often hear expressed at the very idea of healthcare rationing (with each side accusing the other of wanting to ration) only applies to politicians. When healthcare ethicists get together for instance, they (like DrRich) understand that healthcare rationing is utterly unavoidable, and that in fact we’re already not avoiding it. Ethicists argue, instead, about how to do it. In this way, DrRich feels a certain sense of brotherhood with these ethicists (a group which, in nearly every other way, DrRich most often feels a sense of disgust).
So let us consider the ethical argument most often made for discriminating against the elderly in a system of healthcare rationing. Almost always, the argument is a utilitarian one. Saving the life of a 90-year-old might “buy” him only an extra two or three years of life, whereas spending the same amount of money to save a 10-year-old might buy him another 70 – 80 years of life. So society gains much more if it spends the money on the younger person, and withholds it from the older one. From a utilitarian viewpoint the argument for discriminating against the elderly is unassailable.
Non-utilitarian ethics asserts that all individuals have equal value, so discriminating against any person should be avoided, and therefore the 10-year-old and the 90-year-old should have an equal opportunity to receive the medical service in question. (That is, either both should get it or neither should get it.)
DrRich believes that most people would sympathize with the idea that if only one life can be saved, saving a young person’s life might make more sense than saving a very old person’s life. He thinks that even most 90-year-olds he has known would agree with this proposition. The problem, DrRich believes, is with the rationale we use for making such a decision.
The utilitarian argument for discriminating against the elderly in a rationing system rests on the idea (as does all utilitarian ethical reasoning) that individuals are not of equal value, at least, not from society’s point of view. And since they are not equivalent in value, it is right and proper for some agent of society to determine the relative value of individuals, so that resources can be distributed accordingly.
Obviously, utilitarian ethics opens the door for differentiating the intrinsic values of individuals for reasons other than age. That is, if you can devalue the elderly to optimize the public good, then you can also devalue the disabled, the stupid, the lazy, the left-handed, and the obese (for instance) to optimize public good.
Emanuel’s “complete lives system,” he argues, is NOT a utilitarian one. Emanuel would favor treating the 10-year-old over the 90-year-old not to maximize public good, but to maximize the opportunity of individuals to enjoy “complete lives” over the entire age spectrum. That is, under his system all individuals are taken as having equal intrinsic value. And during the course of their lives, everyone experiences an equal spectrum of priorities – first, the priority of a 10-year-old, and later (if lucky enough to live that long) the priority of a 90-year-old. While in practical terms this still means discriminating against the elderly, it does so in a way that cannot be extended to other groups of people (i.e, the disabled and so forth), and that, in fact, yields equal age-based priorities across individuals through the course of their complete lives. In other words, when one considers the entire course of an individual’s complete life, he or she is treated the same as any other individual during the entire course of their lives.
In this way, Emanuel asserts, the complete lives system is not a utilitarian system; while it would allow us to withhold medical care from the elderly, based on their age, it would do so in a way that would not open the door for discriminating against others, for other reasons.
DrRich understands this reasoning because he proposed something entirely similar in his book, as an option for dealing with the age issue in a rationing system. In fact, since DrRich wrote his book a few years before Emanuel published his “complete lives system,” it is entirely possible that Emanuel got his idea from yours truly.
DrRich does not expect any thanks from Dr. Emanuel in this regard, however, and in fact he wishes to thank Dr. Emanuel for showing him the fatal flaw in such thinking. Indeed, thanks to Dr. Emanuel, if DrRich were to produce a new edition of his book, he would propose no such thing.
For, no sooner does Dr. Emanuel propose his complete lives system as an alternative to utilitarian ethical reasoning, than he demonstrates, in the very same article, how easily his system can be twisted to the ends of utilitarian ethics.
Specifically, Emanuel argues that a healthcare rationing system should also discriminate against the very young, and asserts that his “complete lives system” justifies such discrimination (since every individual, at one time in their lives, is very young). But in explaining why it would be desirable to withhold medical services from the very young, Emanuel reveals that his rationale, in fact, is entirely utilitarian:
“Consideration of the importance of complete lives also supports modifying the youngest-first principle by prioritizing adolescents and young adults over infants (figure). Adolescents have received substantial education and parental care, investments that will be wasted without a complete life. Infants, in contrast, have not yet received these investments.” (The Lancet, vol 373, p. 428)
So, Emanuel holds that it is OK to discriminate against infants, toddlers and young children on the grounds that society has not “invested” a lot of resources in them yet. That is, their worth to society is not all that great.
This provision is extremely disturbing, to DrRich at least. For it essentially discards the notion that all human lives are of equal intrinsic value, in favor of the idea that an individual’s real value ought to be determined by their worthiness to the collective. And so society has the right and the duty to determine which individual lives are valuable enough to save, and which are not. Note that the rationale for discriminating against the elderly in the complete lives system was framed specifically to avoid having to do this.
In DrRich’s view, this provision against the young entirely negates the purported ethical premise of “complete lives.” This provision is what finally places the state, the insurers, or the GOD panels in the position of assigning intrinsic value to individual human lives, from a distance, as a matter of policy. If this can be done based on extreme youth, then it can also be done based on any other factor which some empowered panel decides will influence the worth of individuals to society.
The above figure, from Emanuel’s article on the complete lives system, reduces the question to a stark graph, with age on the X axis and value to society on the Y axis. Your age is determined by God. Your value to society is determined by the state.
It is easy to envision other, similar graphs, with your worthiness to society plotted on the Y axis, and certain personal features other than age plotted on the X axis – your income, your IQ, your disabilities, your BMI, etc.
DrRich reminds his readers that eugenics has been, from the beginning, an intrinsic part of the Progressive program. The idea that society can (and must) be perfected hinges, to a large extent, on the idea that mankind can (and must) be perfected. And perfecting mankind will require at least some culling of the herd. Indeed, early Progressives unabashedly embraced eugenics as an essential feature of societal perfection – and said so. Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Bertrand Russell, H. G. Wells, and Margaret Sanger are only the most well-known of the Progressives who openly extolled eugenics.
Openly espousing eugenics became politically inadvisable after the Nazi atrocities came to light. But, since you can never achieve a perfect society while you are “carrying” a large proportion of people who are defective in their bodies, or minds, or thoughts, finding an acceptable way to eliminate such undesirables remains intrinsic to Progressivism.
DrRich believes that gaining control of the healthcare system, and gaining control of who gets what, when and how, provides both a new venue and a new language for Progressives to bring their program to fruition.
He humbly suggests that Dr. Emanuel’s “complete lives system” is an example of this new language, and that it offers a glimpse of what a system of Progressive healthcare rationing will look like.
In his last post (and in several past discussions) DrRich asserted that the Hippocratic Oath has been declared formally and officially obsolete by the medical profession itself, and that as a result of this action, the medical profession has voluntarily placed the professional viability of all physicians entirely into the hands of the government. Hence, DrRich has postulated, the Amish Bus Driver Rule is thereby activated, which permits (and probably compels) the government to use the leverage of medical licensure to control and direct the behavior of physicians – even their ethical behavior.
Lest anyone think DrRich is exaggerating about this, let us listen to the words of some of the physician-intellectuals who now hold positions of official responsibility, within the Central Authority itself, for determining the behavior of American doctors. DrRich asks his readers to notice both the content and the tone of these words, as both are important.
First, listen carefully to Donald Berwick, MD, recent recess-appointee to the position of head of CMS, in a passage from his ominously-titled book “New Rules,” (co-written with our old friend Troyen Brennan, MD):
“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…Regulation must evolve. Regulating for improved medical care involves designing appropriate rules with authority…Health care is being rationalized through critical pathways and guidelines. The primary function of regulation in health care, especially as it affects the quality of medical care, is to constrain decentralized individualized decision making.”
(Thanks to Dr. Gaulte of the excellent blog, Retired Doc’s Thoughts, for pointing us to this valuable passage.)
Dr. Berwick’s views on the need to constrain individualized decision-making in the practice of medicine is echoed by none other than Ezekiel Emanuel, MD, PhD. Dr. Emanuel is a bioethicist at the National Institutes of Health, and a fellow at The Hastings Center (a bioethics research institution). He is the brother of former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel (himself an expert in political ethics). Dr. Emanuel was brought in to the Obama administration as a high-ranking adviser on healthcare reform, and is widely expected to have a strong hand in determining who will sit on the GOD panels and how those panels will operate.
Regular readers will recall that Dr. Emanuel is also the co-author of that infamous paper recently accepted for publication in the Annals of Internal Medicine (and whose editors, thereby, formally auditioned for seats on those GOD panels) which called upon American physicians to abandon their ancient tradition of primarily serving their patients, and instead embrace their true destiny, which is assimilating into the Borg.
DrRich has found two instances in Dr. Emanuel’s writings in which he specifically commented on the obsolescence of the Hippocratic Oath.
In the May 16, 2007 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, in an article entitled, “What Cannot Be Said on Television About Health Care,” Emanuel expresses the following complaint about American physicians: “Reasoning based on cost has been strenuously resisted; it violated the Hippocratic Oath, was associated with rationing, and derided as putting a price on life, akin to the economist who knew the price of everything but the value of nothing.”
In the June 18, 2008 issue of the same journal, in an article on healthcare “overutilization,” he discussed seven factors that drive the overuse of medical services. He identifies one of these factors as a “culture of unwarranted thoroughness” on the part of American doctors, which serves to drive up cost. “This culture is further reinforced by a unique understanding of professional obligations, specifically, the Hippocratic Oath’s admonition to ‘use my power to help the sick to the best of my ability and judgment’ as an imperative to do everything for the patient regardless of cost or effect on others.”
Thus, Emanuel finds that it is a stubborn adherence to outdated medical ethics, which causes doctors to strictly place their individual patient’s interests above society’s interests, that accounts for a substantial proportion of unnecessary healthcare costs.
These passages from the very physicians who are directly driving healthcare policy through the auspices not of professional medical organizations, but through the auspices of the Central Authority itself, are striking in two ways.
First, their directness is striking. Doctors no longer work for the good of their patients; they work for the good of the collective. And heretofore they are obligated to follow the rules which are promulgated centrally, rules backed by the righteous force of the Central Authority, rules whose primary function is to make sure that decisions on medical care will be directed centrally, rather than at the doctor-patient level.
Second, the indignation these passages reflect is striking. The obligation of physicians to follow central directives is not an item of negotiation or persuasion – it is a DONE DEAL. Physicians’ own elected leadership of their own professional organizations – all of them – have formally signed on to the New Ethics, ethics which obligate doctors to practice medicine in a way that follows the dictates of remote panels guarding the interests of the collective (rather in a way that jealously guards the needs of individual patients). And while this abandonment of an ethical precept that had been in force for over two millennia was promulgated with little fanfare, and while most practicing physicians seem not to realize that it has even happened (though we can be sure that all medical students everywhere are being steeped in it), it is a DONE DEAL.
And doctors who persist in practicing the “old way,” are not only acting in a manner that is “no longer tenable or possible,” but they are also violating the very ethical precepts which their own profession has now voluntarily adopted. They are behaving unethically. They are being evil.
No wonder our physician leaders are indignant. No wonder they have little choice but to divine the necessary “rules with authority” to force these recalcitrant physicians to do their self-admitted duty to the collective. By persisting with their old fashioned ideas in the face of that which medical ethics now prescribes, doctors are forcing the Central Authority to take strong action. Fortunately, since (we all know) our government is a benign entity, it will begin gently, with tough central rules and regulations (backed by authority) to “constrain decentralized individualized decision making.” The Central Authority will only invoke the Amish Bus Driver Rule (or worse) if these kinder, gentler steps fail.
As for the doctors who do not like this new reality, DrRich has a harsh message. You brought this on yourselves, by allowing your professional organizations to propose, write, and adopt these “New Medical Ethics.” For all the statements of Berwick, and Emanuel, and other health policy experts, castigating you for your inadherence to these new ethics, are predicated on the fact that you have a formally-adopted obligation to follow them.
It does no good to protest that you yourself were unaware that your profession has taken this formal action. Just as President Obama is your President whether you voted for him or not, the New Ethics is your formal rule whether you agreed with it (or were aware of it) or not.
And if you do not like the idea that the details of your behavior as a practicing physician are going to be handed down from on-high, and that you are not to be permitted any longer to primarily advocate for your patient, against the competing interests of the slavering Central Authority, you have nobody to blame except yourself.
And what this tells us is that if you are going to change things, you cannot hope to seek relief from legislators, or from your medical leadership (which has already assimilated with the Borg). Your only hope is to begin by reclaiming your profession yourselves, and re-asserting your primary obligation to your patient. There are several ways to undertake such a course, all of which will require standing up to the government and to your own leadership, and all of which will be difficult and dangerous at this late stage. But it is the only path that remains open to you for your professional salvation.
Just keep this undeniable fact in mind: Obamacare, or any other form of centralized control over the practice of medicine, can only be achieved with the active acquiescence of physicians themselves. If physicians decide they simply will not allow themselves to be coerced to unethical medical actions, and insist on reestablishing the doctor-patient covenant as the guiding precept of their profession, the entire house of cards will fall. Physicians are far from powerless, if they would only dare to act.
We will still need healthcare reform, to be sure, but physicians have the power to insist that it can only be a kind of healthcare reform which fully honors and guarantees that covenant.
Rachel Maddow, in a discussion related to the provision of abortion services, once proposed that we (society) should invoke the Amish Bus Driver Rule whenever medical professionals invoke their personal convictions in refusing to provide legal medical services.
The Amish Bus Driver Rule goes like this: If you’re Amish, and therefore have religious convictions against internal combustion engines, then you have disqualified yourself for employment as a bus driver. (Presumably Ms. Maddow would not apply the Amish Bus Driver Rule to everyone, since it would disqualify, for instance, Al Gore from utilizing horseless carriages and other fossil-fueled contrivances.)
The Amish Bus Driver Rule would do far more than merely render it OK for doctors to perform abortions and other ethically controversial (but legal) medical services. The ABDR would obligate physicians to provide such services, whatever their personal moral or religious convictions.
The reason DrRich brings this up is not because he considers Rachel Maddow to be the giver of rules for the left, or for the government, or even for MSNBC. Rather, he brings it up because the Amish Bus Driver Rule is entirely compatible with Progressive medical ethics, and therefore it has a pretty good chance, sooner or later, of becoming the official policy of our new healthcare system.
To spell it out: Once you agree to accept from the government a license to practice medicine, and thus accept a privileged and restricted position within our society, then you are naturally obligated to provide any medical services, approved by the government, that you are called upon to provide. In particular, you are obligated to check your personal – and most especially, your religious – convictions at the door. If you are unwilling to carry out this obligation, then, like the Amish bus driver, you have disqualified yourself from that privileged position. Go do some other job that does not violate your prissy sensibilities.
This logic is eminently simple. In fact, it can be reduced to an elementary syllogism:
Premise 1: Society awards physicians an exclusive license to provide legitimate medical services.
Premise 2: Society deems certain medical services such as abortion, assisted suicide or euthanasia to be legitimate medical services.
Conclusion: Therefore, all licensed physicians are obligated to provide these services.
Many conservatives will be nearly apoplectic over the idea that doctors who are morally opposed to life-ending medical activities must either agree to perform those activities (once society decides they are legitimate medical services) or leave the profession. But conservatives, proud of their self-described tradition of acting on the basis of hard data and cold logic (unlike those silly liberals who let simple emotions rule them), find themselves in this instance stymied by the very foundation of logic – the syllogism. They are hoisted on their own petard.
Indeed, doctors who object to having to provide life-ending medical services find themselves in quite a fix, and what’s more, it is a fix that has resulted from the actions of their own profession.
When we are faced with a syllogism whose internal logic is unassailable, but whose conclusion we strongly believe to be wrong, then Aristotle (him again!) teaches us to check our premises. But when we do so, in this case we quickly see that while both premises may “feel” wrong to many physicians, in 2010 they are indeed correct. And therefore, so is the conclusion.
Premise 1 asserts that the physicians’ primary obligations are defined by a contract between themselves and society – or (let’s be frank) the state.
Until just a few years ago doctors could have legitimately objected to this assertion, since from the time of the ancient Greeks the physician’s prime obligation was defined by a direct covenant between themselves and the individual patient. And the precepts of medical ethics that governed the behavior of physicians were focused entirely on sanctifying that doctor-patient relationship. Those ethical precepts took precedence over everything else, like ethical precepts are meant to do, and at least in principle superseded all other authority down through the ages.
But alas, modern doctors don’t hold to such things anymore. And in recent years they have made their departure from their ancient ethical principles, and from the traditional doctor-patient relationship, fully explicit and quite formal. They have done this to such an extent that they can no longer even aspire to the relatively minor sin of hypocrisy. (Say what you will about hypocrites. At least they espouse firm principles which they can then violate.)
It is clear, of course, that doctors do not work for their patients anymore. Instead, they now work for the government and the government-regulated insurance companies. Still, this new kind of working relationship does not necessarily have to wreck medical ethics or the doctor-patient relationship, were it managed thoughtfully. But rather than figure out how to preserve their professional obligations within a new economic paradigm, the medical profession instead has chosen to issue a revised set of ethical precepts “for a new millennium,” aimed at adjusting what were supposed to have been (and had been, for the prior two millennia) timeless principles, in order to comport with the changing needs of society. And so, of its own accord, the medical profession has abandoned its foundational ethical precepts, and thereby has abandoned the classic doctor-patient relationship – the very thing which defined the practice of medicine to be a professional endeavor in the first place. The medical profession has redefined itself by a new obligation to the changeable needs of the collective, instead of its old obligation to the expectations of the individual patients who place their lives in their hands.
In short, the profession of medicine has formally and voluntarily converted itself into a primarily contractual enterprise (i.e., as contractors for the government and government proxies), instead of a primarily ethical enterprise between themselves and their patients.
And so, whereas Premise 1 could have been easily cast aside just a few years ago (which is why it still “feels” wrong to a lot of doctors), today it is entirely legitimate.
Premise 2 recognizes certain life-ending activities to be legitimate medical services. Abortion, of course, has been legal in the U.S. for several decades. Since many of his readers will quibble with the assertion that abortion is life-ending, DrRich has decided to make Premise 2 somewhat forward looking, and so he has included the other two life-ending actions which will very likely become legitimate, approved “medical services” in the foreseeable future.
The medical profession not too many decades ago was quite clear on the ethical status of life-ending actions taken by physicians. Such actions in all their forms were proscribed. The Hippocratic Oath forbids taking actions intended to end life, and specifically calls out abortion as one of those forbidden actions. But the Hippocratic Oath (like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution) has become merely quaint in our modern, advanced society.
One of the reasons DrRich appreciated the Hippocratic Oath, when it was recited at his medical school graduation way back in a different era, was that it so clearly reflected non-religious standards. Yes, it blustered on about Asclepius and Hygieia and so on, but even the ancient Greeks didn’t really take their gods seriously. The Oath invoked the gods in the same manner in which, some assert, our founders invoked the Creator in the Declaration of Independence. Whether or not they were actually asserting that our foundational principles come directly from a being named God, they were making a very powerful statement. At the very least, they were saying, “We hold these principles to be so fundamental to the essence of man that to violate them would violate our very reason to exist. They are our bedrock, and to challenge them would be fatal to our enterprise. Here we draw our line in the sand, and we will defend this line to our deaths.”
The Hippocratic Oath was kind of like that.
The Hippocratic invocation against physicians ending innocent life was a clear line in the sand, and its purpose was a practical one rather than a religious one. For, in order to legally take an innocent life, we are required to say either that sometimes it is perfectly OK to kill an innocent human being, or that for some reason (because, for instance, at such-and-such a stage of fetal development the potential human is not yet viable) a particular innocent life is not really a human being after all. If it is sometimes perfectly OK to kill an innocent human being, our society is terminally corrupt. On the other hand, if society has the temerity to define “human being” in such a way as to meet its exigencies of the moment (beyond the most conservative possible definition suggested by nature, that is, the point where sperm and the egg combine to form a new life entity), it will necessarily be a fundamentally arbitrary definition. And once society undertakes to define human life arbitrarily, then there is nothing to stop society from changing that arbitrary definition as expediency requires.
Wise Hippocrates (DrRich suspects), foreseeing that mankind was likely to continue with its periodic spurts of genocidal indignation against this or that sub-human subset of our species, and seeing that it would be fatal to the medical profession to allow its special arts to be turned toward aiding such efforts, and realizing that it would be impossible, once physicians engaged in any small but legitimized taking of innocent life, to keep from escalating those activities if the needs of a society under duress demanded it, came to the conclusion that the profession required an absolute proscription here. This proscription was not a religious statement, but a practical and entirely secular one, based on a long and thoughtful observation of human nature, and aimed at keeping the medical profession focused on its real mission (caring for individual patients) rather than becoming an instrument of societal or political imperatives. And for over two thousand years the medical profession followed this line of reasoning.
The Hippocratic Oath has not been read aloud during medical school graduation ceremonies for decades now. The reason it was dropped has nothing to do with the usual claptrap you hear about not wanting to swear to Greek gods anymore. It has to do with the fact that doctors no longer subscribe to the content. It is no coincidence that the oath disappeared from the program in very short order during the 1970s, right after the Rowe v. Wade decision. In any case, over the past few decades many physicians – possibly a majority – have quite gotten over their queasiness about taking actions that either a) end innocent life, or b) admit that society has the right to define arbitrarily what it means by “human life.” And the ones who still object to such actions are in dire risk of becoming the Amish bus drivers of healthcare.
So Premise 2 clearly expresses the actual default position of the medical profession today. While, for many physicians, it (like Premise 1) “feels” wrong, Premise 2 stands on its own merits.
Thus, like it or not, almost entirely due to the “evolution” of the profession of medicine itself rather than to any externally imposed changes, our syllogism appears entirely correct.
The implications are quite disturbing, and go far beyond the mere prospect of forcing pro-life doctors to either get with the program or get out. For what this syllogism really says is that the state will determine which medical actions are legitimate (or to be more specific, ethical), and that physicians being (through their own voluntary capitulation) mere contractors working at the pleasure of the state, are thus obligated to just shut up and sing. To say it more plainly, what is medically ethical is to be determined by the state, and individual doctors (except for the ones acting as collaborators and spokespersons for the state, whose job will be to make the ethical pronouncements seem medically legitimate), will have nothing to say about it.
When we view the history of mankind, we see that when the sovereign state is the entity which determines what is ethical, there is always hell to pay.
History teaches us that the state is sovereign not because it is inherently the most ethical entity within a social construct, or an ethical entity in any sense at all. Sovereignty is determined by power, not ethics. Indeed, the most useful definition of “sovereign power” is: that power which has the ultimate ability to impose its will by the application of violence. The state is inherently a political and power-based entity, whose survival depends on manipulating the political landscape and the ability to threaten (or exert) adequate violence whenever required. Such a beast is inherently poor at ethics.
DrRich happens to believe that American society is essentially good, and constitutes the most ethical large and sustained social system that has yet been devised by mankind. Yet when pressed by economics, war, political strife, manifest destiny or a myriad of other stresses, even our government has behaved dismally and frankly unethically, and has done so on numerous occasions throughout its history. One merely needs to consider slavery, the Dred Scott decision, the Mexican-American war, the treatment of native Americans, World War II internment camps, and the Tuskegee study (DrRich ignores more recent history here to avoid stirring up still-fresh controversies) to get a taste of what kinds of government behavior we in our culture are capable of justifying to ourselves when under duress. (To put this in perspective, of course, other highly-developed Western cultures during the past century, where powerful sovereign authorities assumed the right to define ethical actions, performed atrocities that cause ours to pale in comparison. But this mitigation merely reinforces DrRich’s main point.)
As DrRich has been fond of pointing out on this blog, the need to find ways to ration American healthcare covertly has created extreme duress within our healthcare system, and within the government and the insurance companies responsible for administering it. And as a result covert rationing has already produced deeply and widely distributed behaviors that are harmful, inefficient, unfair and yes, frankly unethical, which affect every aspect of American healthcare. Ceding to the state – desperate to ration healthcare in any manner it can get away with – the right to define what is medically ethical, and assigning to doctors the obligation of simply obeying, sounds to DrRich like a prescription for catastrophe.
And in this way, Progressive medical ethics has brought us to a very dangerous juncture.
Having advanced his theory of Progressivism, and having shown how his theory explains certain behaviors on the part of Progressives that otherwise might be difficult to explain, DrRich now proposes to examine the question of the medical ethics of Progressivism.
This ought to be an important question to doctors, patients, and anyone who thinks they might someday become a patient. For, however else one might want to define “ethics,” for practical purposes a system of ethics fundamentally determines how one ought to act when one must act in the face of competing interests. And the healthcare system being rife with competing interests, ethical guidance is critical as we determine who is to get what, when and how.
Because ethicists generally attempt to devise a solution which balances, to some degree, the various competing interests (which all tend to have at least some merit), the field of ethics has become very complex to the uninitiated. Indeed, the arguments ethicists use to justify their positions are frequently so difficult to follow that professional ethicists all too often have been reduced to a virtual priesthood, dispensing their lofty wisdom from on-high.
But since truly ethical behavior requires more than merely following handed-down marching orders, and indeed, requires a certain amount of clarity as regards ethical precepts, DrRich has always considered the arcane work-product being offered up by most modern ethicists to be, well, unethical.
And this is where Progressivism, for all its faults, provides a breath of fresh air. For the chief ethical precept of Progressivism is an item of exquisite clarity, a bright, shining beacon that cuts through all the fog and fuzziness, and points the way.
To review, Progressivism (in DrRich’s formulation, at least) is the idea that the driving imperative of mankind is to devise the perfect society, that, indeed, the desired “progress” in Progressivism is the steady advancement toward that perfect society. The Progressive program is the natural result of the belief, most famously espoused by Aristotle, that man is inherently a social animal, an animal that naturally forms into complex societies; that individual men and women do not have much intrinsic worth as stand-alone units, but only as components of their larger group.
Furthermore, the Progressive program is to be driven by an intellectual elite, who will determine what does and does not advance the perfect society. This requirement for an elite leadership also derives from Aristotle, who recognized that most individuals within a society are incapable of perceiving the greater good, and if left to their own devices would return mankind to the ranks of the apes.
The Progressive program of steadily advancing toward a perfect society is much more than merely a desirable goal, it is an imperative; it is intrinsic to humanity itself. All other programs (libertarianism, conservatism, religions which emphasize the importance of individual salvation, &c.) are not only counterproductive to man’s true imperative, but are heretical.
And so Progressive ethics, if nothing else, are crystal clear: Anything that advances the Progressive program is ethical; anything that hinders it is unethical.
This general statement of ethics immediately implies two corollaries that more directly define what “right behavior” will look like:
Corollary 1) What is best for the collective is best for the individual. That is, since individual humans only achieve their humanity as a part of the greater whole, it follows that the chief obligation of any individual within a society is to act for the good of the collective.
Corollary 2) Since what is best for the collective is determined by the intellectual elite, it is the obligation of all individuals in a society to follow that elite.
With this summary of Progressive ethics, let us now turn to the question of medical ethics.
Classical medical ethics, from the time of Hippocrates, required the physician to always use his/her special training and special capacity for autonomous action for the benefit of the individual patient, and to place the needs of the individual patient above their personal needs. This requirement is what defined medicine as a classical profession.*
* While the term “profession” has become diluted to include streetwalkers and football players, classically “the professions” were limited to physicians, lawyers and clergy, precisely because of this definition.
But classical medical ethics cannot be permitted under a Progressive program. Allowing (much less encouraging) physicians to act autonomously for the good of their individual patients will necessarily conflict with that which is best for the collective. This is true because if the needs of the individual were to prevail, then patients who are lucky, smart or rich, and who have doctors who are particularly clever or aggressive, will get more than their fair share of the healthcare resources, leaving the collective wanting.
Accordingly, after years and years of dogged work, the Progressive agenda has succeeded very recently in changing the formal definition of medical ethics. In early 2002, a “new charter” of medical ethics was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. This new charter has since been formally endorsed by every major medical professional organization in the world. It charges physicians with the ethical obligation of achieving a fair distribution of healthcare resources. Medical students worldwide are now being taught that their main ethical obligation is to work for distributive justice, their obligation to work for the optimal benefit of their individual patients is a secondary concern, because of Corollary 1.
DrRich has described elsewhere how this new medical ethics places patients in great jeopardy, and wrecks medicine as a true profession. But old farts like DrRich (who prefers to think of himself as a “classic” physician), who still care about such things, will be gone in a few decades and can be safely ignored.
(For those who are interested, DrRich had the opportunity earlier this year to engage representatives of the American College of Physicians – chief authors of the New Ethics – in a public debate over medical ethics in this very space. DrRich was, at the end of the day, brushed off by the ACP, but not before eliciting a response from the Chair of the ACP’s Committee on Ethics, Professionalism, and Human Rights. That response, in essence, was, “What is good for the collective is good for the individual, and any jack-dog knows this. Who the hell are you?” In other words she invoked Corollary 1. You can read all the details about the great Medical Ethics Smack Down in this series of articles.)
One might ask, what was the impetus for physicians to voluntarily change their time-honored ethical precepts?
They were coerced.
Significant coercion was being applied to doctors to place the interests of the third party payers – both insurance companies and the government – ahead of their duty to individual patients. The utter impotence of physicians in fighting off this coercion was the impetus for promulgating the new ethical precept (to society) in the first place. This fact was stated explicitly in a 1998 article by Hall and Berenson in the Annals of Internal Medicine (volume 128, p 395) which stated: “It is untenable for the medical profession to continue asserting an idealistic ethic that is contradicted so openly in clinical practice. . .,” and which called for a “new ethic” which was more consistent with how doctors were being forced to behave. Specifically, the proposed “new ethic” was a duty to the group.
This paper was an important impetus to formally changing professional ethics. When the new ethical standard istelf was finally published in 2002, its very first sentence began, “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.”
In other words, physicians felt powerless to fight off the coercion – so in response they changed medical ethics to make it OK to cave in.
And to say it yet another way, physicians can now act under Corollary 2 with a clear conscience.
Accordingly, it is now become the physician’s ethical obligation – and not merely a legal or regulatory obligation – to follow to the letter the guidelines, processes, and procedures that are handed down to them from various government-established expert panels, when they are caring for their patients. Autonomous actions taken on behalf of individual patients is more than just discouraged, it is, simply, wrong.
Under our new program of medical ethics, then, doctors are absolved of much of the responsibility of clinical decision-making. As many of those decisions as possible – a continually increasing quantity of them as time goes by – will be determined centrally, at which point the doctor is ethically obligated to follow them.
DrRich continues to think this new program is harmful to patients and to the medical profession. He will bring up some specific issues in this regard in future posts.
DrRich’s Independence Day Address to his Loyal Readers:
DrRich has always found it fascinating that the television show, “House MD” has remained so popular for so long. After all, Gregory House embodies the polar opposite of what we all say we want in a modern physician. House may be brilliant, but he’s antisocial, arrogant, sloppy and rude. He holds his patients in contempt, and considers them to be mentally deficient, or prevaricators, or both. He will take any action he deems necessary, however illegal or immoral it may be, to make sure his patients get whatever medical interventions he has determined they need, whether they (or anyone else) likes it or not.
And when he does what he does, the individual autonomy of his patients never, ever enters his mind.
Given that House extravagantly violates his patients’ autonomy whenever he can find any excuse to do so, joyfully proclaiming his great contempt for them and their individual rights, then why is his story so popular in America and around the world?
DrRich believes that the answer to this question ought to remind us of the fundamentally precarious nature of individual autonomy within our healthcare system, and within our culture.
Individual Autonomy in Medicine
Maintaining the autonomy of the individual patient has become the primary principle of medical ethics. And medical paternalism, whereby the physician knows best and should rightly make the important medical decisions for his or her patient, is supposed to be a thing of the past.
It has been formally agreed, by medical ethicists all over the world, that patients have a nearly absolute right to determine their own medical destiny. In particular, unless the patient is incapacitated, the doctor (after taking every step necessary to inform the patient of all the available options, and the potential risks and benefits of each one) must defer to the final decision of the patient – even if the doctor strongly disagrees with that decision. Hence, the kind of behavior which is the modus operandi of Dr. House should be universally castigated.
The notion that the patient’s autonomy is and ought to be the predominant principle of medical ethics, of course, is entirely consistent with the Enlightenment ideal of individual rights. This ideal first developed in Europe nearly 500 years ago, but had trouble taking root there, and really only flowered when Europeans first came to America and had the opportunity to put it to work in an isolated location, where rigid social structures were not already in place. The development of this ideal culminated with America’s Declaration of Independence, in which our founders declared individual autonomy (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness) to be an “inalienable” right granted by the Creator, and thus predating and taking precedence over any government created by mankind. And since that time the primacy of the individual in American culture has, more or less, remained our chief operating principle. Individual autonomy – or to put it in more familiar terms, individual freedom – is the foundational principle of our culture, and it is one that is perpetually worth fighting and dying to defend.
So the idea that the autonomy of the individual ought rightly to predominate when it comes to making medical decisions is simply a natural extension of the prime American ideal. It is obvious, most think, that this ought to be the governing principle of medical ethics.
Dr. House: The Champion of Beneficence
But unfortunately, it’s not that easy. There’s another principle of medical ethics that has an even longer history than that of autonomy – the principle of beneficence. Beneficence dictates that the physician must always act to maximize the benefit – and minimize the harm – to the patient. Beneficence recognizes that the physician is the holder of great and special knowledge that is not easily duplicated, and therefore has a special obligation to use that knowledge – always and without exception – to do what he knows is best for the patient. Dr. House is a proponent of the principle of beneficence (though he is most caustic and abrasive about expressing it). DrRich believes House is popular at least partly because the benefits that can accrue to a patient through the principle of beneficence – that is, through medical paternalism – are plain for all to see.
Obviously, as “House MD” nicely illustrates, the principles of beneficence and of individual autonomy will sometimes be in conflict. When two worthwhile and legitimate ethical principles are found to be in conflict, that is called an ethical dilemma. Ethical dilemmas are often resolved either by consensus or by force. In our culture, this dilemma has been resolved (for now) by consensus. The world community has deemed individual autonomy to predominate over beneficence in making medical decisions.
DrRich’s point here is that Dr. House (the champion of beneficence) is not absolutely wrong. Indeed, he espouses a time-honored precept of medical ethics, which until quite recently was THE precept of medical ethics. There is much to be said for beneficence. Making the “right” medical decision often requires having deep and sophisticated knowledge about the options, knowledge which is often beyond the reach of many patients. And even sophisticated patients who are well and truly medically literate will often become lost when they are ill, distraught and afraid, and their capacity to make difficult decisions is diminished. Perhaps, some (like House) would say, their autonomy ought not be their chief concern at such times. Indeed, one could argue that in a perfect world, where the doctor has nearly perfect knowledge and a nearly perfect appreciation of what is best for the patient, beneficence should take precedence over autonomy.
Why Autonomy Predominates
In this light it is instructive to consider just how and why autonomy came to be declared, by universal consensus, the predominant principle of medical ethics. It happened after World War II, as a direct result of the Nuremberg Tribunal. During that Tribunal the trials against Nazi doctors revealed heinous behavior – generally involving medical “research” on Jewish prisoners – that exceeded all bounds of civilized activity. It became evident that under some circumstances (circumstances which were extreme under the Nazis, but which are by no means unique in human history) individual patients could not rely on the beneficence of society, or the beneficence of the government, or even the beneficence of their own doctors to protect them from abuse at the hands of authority. Thus, the ethical precept which asks patients ultimately to rely on the beneficence of others was starkly revealed to be wholly inadequate; and indeed, invites horrific results. Thus the precept of individual autonomy won out not because it is so inherently superior, but by default.
Subsequently, the Nuremberg Code of medical ethics was drafted and formally adopted worldwide. The Nuremberg Code officially declared individual autonomy to be the predominant precept of medical ethics, and the precept of beneficence, while also important, was declared to be of secondary concern. Where a conflict occurs between these two ethical precepts, the patient’s autonomy is to win out.
Again, this declaration was not a positive statement about how honoring the autonomy of the individual represents the peak of human ethical behavior. Rather, it was fundamentally a negative statement: Under duress (the Nuremberg Code admits) societies (and their agents) often behave very badly, and ultimately only the individual himself can be relied upon to at least attempt to protect his or her own best interests.
House vs. Autonomy and the Great American Experiment
DrRich will take this one step further: when our founders made individual autonomy the organizing principle of a new nation, they were also making a negative statement.
From their observation of human history (and anyone who doubts that our founders were intimately familiar with the great breadth of human history should re-read the Federalist Papers), they found that individuals could not rely on any earthly authority to protect them, their life and limb, or their individual prerogatives. Mankind had tried every variety of authority – kings, clergy, heroes, philosophers and professors – and individuals were eventually trampled under by them all. In the spirit of the Enlightenment, and because everything else had been tried many times and had failed, our founders declared individual liberty to be the bedrock of our new culture.
There is an inherent problem with relying on individual autonomy as the chief ethical principle of medicine, namely, autonomous patients not infrequently make very bad decisions for themselves, and then they – and their loved ones, and sometimes society – have to pay the consequences. The same occurs, of course, when we rely on individual autonomy as the chief operating principle of our civil life. The capacity of individuals to fend for themselves – to succeed in our competitive culture – is not equal, and so the outcomes are decidedly unequal. Autonomous individuals often fail – either because of inherent personal limitations, bad decisions, or bad luck.
So whether we’re talking about medicine or society at large, despite our foundational principles we will always have the temptation to return to a posture of dependence – of relying on the beneficence of some authority, in the hope of achieving more overall security or fairness – at the sacrifice of our individual autonomy.
In DrRich’s estimation the popularity of “House MD” is entirely consistent with this very strong tendency. Indeed, he thinks, the writers are compelled to make Dr. House as unattractive a person as he is, just to temper our enthusiasm for an authority figure who always knows what is best for us and acts on that knowledge, come hell or high water. If a figure such as Dr. House was also a compelling personality and had a gift with words, he would become almost Messianic – far too dangerous a prospect for a television program.
Those of us who defend the principle of individual autonomy – and the economic system of capitalism that flows from it – all too often forget where it came from, and DrRich believes this is why it can be so difficult to defend. We – and our founders – did not adopt it as the peak of all human thought, but for the very practical reason that ceding ultimate authority to any other entity, sooner or later, guarantees tyranny. This was true in 1776, and after observing the numerous experiments in socialism we have seen around the world since that time, is even more true today.
Individual autonomy will always be a very imperfect organizing principle, both for healthcare and for society at large. Making it an acceptable principle takes perpetual hard work, to find ways of smoothing out the stark inequities that will always result, without ceding too much corrupting power to some central authority. This is the Great American Experiment.
Those of us who have the privilege of being Americans today, of all days, find ourselves greatly challenged. But earlier generations of Americans faced challenges that were every bit as difficult. If we continually remind ourselves what’s at stake, and that while our system is not perfect or even perfectable, it remains far better than any other system that has ever been tried, and that we can continue to improve on it without ceding our destiny – medical or civil – to a corruptible central authority, then perhaps we can keep that Great American Experiment going, and eventually hand it off intact to yet another generation, to face yet another generation’s challenges.
DrRich explains it all in, Fixing American Healthcare – Wonkonians, Gekkonians and the Grand Unification Theory of Healthcare.
The thing about Progressives is that the characteristic which makes them most endearing (and, which makes them most attractive to the unaware), is the very characteristic which makes them the most dangerous.
Fundamentally, Progressives believe in the perfectibility of mankind, or at least, of society. Indeed, they have discovered the very Program which will lead to the perfect society, a society which will maximize the good of the whole. Their vision is so compelling, and their ends so utterly and undeniably right, that it becomes legitimate for them to engage in whatever means are necessary to achieve it. (Indeed, for those who have been paying attention, “By Whatever Means Necessary” appears to have supplanted “Hope and Change” as the catchphrase of our current political leaders.)
The thing that always trips up Progressives (and their more revolutionary cousins, the Communists), is, of course, human nature. In order for their Program to work, it is necessary for each individual to behave in the prescribed fashion. And, at the end of the day, a substantial proportion of the population (any population) will insist on striving for their own individual benefit, rather than (as the Program requires) for the benefit of the collective.
The major competing system of societal organization – capitalism – recognizes this facet of human nature (i.e., the essential imperfectability of mankind, as manifested by the non-suppressibility of self-interest), and attempts to channel it into relatively productive and non-destructive (but still competitive and individually-directed) behaviors that limit the damage, and maximize the public good to a reasonable degree.
In contrast, Progressives attempt to change human nature to fit their inherently superior Program.
The fact that you cannot change human nature to fit the Program is what makes them dangerous. Their initial wide-eyed optimism that us folks will just “get it,” once they explain it to us, invariably evolves to an essential contempt for our limited intellectual capacity. This contempt justifies all manner of prevarications, to fool us into going along. Even in societies where the tyranny of correct-thinking has gone so far as to elicit the cooperation of the people at the point of a gun (rather than through the preferred methods of “education” or misdirection), the achievement of the predicted perfect society is invariably prevented by the recalcitrance of human nature. (The final realization that not even an all-powerful central authority can make people behave in the prescribed way always produces a nearly psychotic frustration that – in virtually every Communist country – has led to atrocities against various subsets of the recalcitrant people.)
DrRich does not believe there will ever be pogroms in the United States.
But this does not mean that the Progressives will always be kind and gentle as they attempt to achieve their goals. As DrRich sees it, in the U.S. the Progressives have clearly evolved to the “contempt for the masses” phase of their Program, a phase which justifies all manner of techniques – just this side of violence – to get us all to cooperate. Currently they are intent on demonizing their opponents as being racist, stupid, uneducated, selfish, overly dependent on outmoded supernatural beings, violent, and (of course) obese. This demonization is quite useful, since there is obviously no need to address any actual ideas put forth by such as these, even if they were capable of the feat of “ideas.”
Healthcare is, at present, the chief battleground in the war between Progressives vs. non-Progressives in the U.S., and the outcome of this battle will likely determine the success or failure of the entire Progressive Program. And the most fundamental (and emblematic) aspect of this battle is over what to do about the “doctor-patient relationship.”
The classic doctor-patient relationship was a celebration of the primacy of individual rights. And, for over 2000 years (at least since the advent of the Hippocratic Oath) guaranteeing the sanctity of that relationship was the basis of all medical ethics.
Until very recently doctors, patients, philosophers and ethicists recognized that, when you are sick, you are no more capable of navigating a complex and hostile healthcare system than are accused felons a complex and hostile legal system, and you are no less in peril if you run afoul of that system. And, just as the felon has a right to a personal advocate, a professional whose job is to protect his individual interests against the conflicting aims of the “system,” so does the patient. That is (quaint conventional wisdom held), when you are sick, you should be entitled to at least the same protections as when you rob a convenience store. And the doctor-patient relationship was supposed to guarantee you that right.
This is why, throughout the ages, the basic precepts of medical ethics were aimed at guaranteeing the sanctity of the doctor-patient relationship. Fundamentally, these ethical precepts required the physician to place the needs of his or her individual patient above all other considerations.
It should be clear to everyone that, under either our “old” healthcare system or the one that Obamacare promises us, this formulation of the doctor-patient relationship cannot be allowed to stand. Neither the insurance executives nor government officials can allow spending decisions – that is, decisions on how to spend their money – to be made by individual patients (and their personal advocates). For this reason, the classic doctor-patient relationship had to go.
And so, in 2002, official medical ethics was formally amended to require physicians (while still giving lip service to their obligation to individual patients) to strive for a “just distribution of healthcare resources.” That is, official medical ethics now makes it ethical for physicians to ration healthcare, covertly, at the bedside – and indeed, makes it unethical for them to fail to do so.
The New Ethics has been enthusiastically supported by medical ethicists worldwide (a field which now seems to be dominated by utilitarians), and worse, has been embraced by all the world’s major medical professional organizations. DrRich has not embraced the New Ethics (on the grounds that it places individual patients at great peril, and destroys the profession of medicine), and neither have many (possibly a majority) of older physicians. But it has been taught in medical schools around the world for over a decade, and in another decade it is likely that the vast majority of practicing physicians will accept as a matter of course that their primary obligation is to control healthcare costs, and only secondarily to try to meet the needs of their individual patients.
The plan, therefore, is for Obamacare to provide physicians with directives from expert panels on which medical services to supply to which patients and when, and for the New Ethics to allow physicians who go along with such directives to live with themselves. The feasibility of this plan depends entirely on physicians acceding to the program.
So, incentives are being put in place to “help” doctors cooperate. Quality measures will be implemented, with “quality” being defined as doctors doing what they’re told, and reimbursement will be tied to one’s quality rating. Possibly more persuasive will be the fact that the Feds can construe the failure to follow handed-down rules, regulations and guidelines, at any time, as a federal crime. (Even doctors who don’t mind being labeled as “substandard quality” – perhaps even considering the label as a badge of honor – will mind going to jail.)
But by whatever means necessary, the happiness of the government is to be the doctor’s first consideration, and not the happiness of their individual patients. The classic doctor-patient relationship is being terminated with extreme prejudice.
To see just how important it is to destroy the doctor-patient relationship, one merely has to observe what is happening to primary care doctors who have the audacity to leave the system, and set up a direct-pay medical practice.
Part of the problem, to be sure, was caused by these doctors themselves. The first few to do so unabashedly catered to rich patients, and to attract the rich, referred to themselves as “concierge” practitioners. This name (and its elitist connotations) have been forcibly affixed to all direct-pay practitioners, even as this style of practice has evolved into a much more democratic form. Today, more and more doctors are starting direct-pay practices (in which patients pay the doctors out of their own pockets) which are easily affordable to anyone who can afford a cell phone or cable TV contract.
While many direct-pay practices offer patients certain benefits they can usually not get from primary care doctors who remain in the approved system (such as phone and e-mail access, same-day appointments, appointments lasting as long as necessary instead of the allotted 7.5 minutes, etc.), the fundamental benefit, to both the patient and the doctor, is that it restores the classic doctor-patient relationship. The physician’s primary obligation is no longer to the 3rd-party overlord, or to the Progressive ideal of social justice, but to the patient.
And while critics (who abound) attack direct-pay practitioners for their elitism, laziness, and greed, their real issue is that direct-pay practitioners are acting as if their primary duty is to their individual patients, and not to the needs of society. This latter fault simply cannot be tolerated.
Having gained nearly complete control over the behavior of primary care practitioners, it is critical for Progressives – in making sure that practice by handed-down “guidelines” is not simply the only legal way to practice, but also the only ethical way to practice – to shut the door to any alternative forms of primary care. Direct-pay practitioners are a menace because they threaten to raise the expectations of both doctors and patients. Perhaps, doctors and patients might tell themselves, there really is a way to maintain individual autonomy within the healthcare system.
The attacks on direct-pay practitioners have followed the usual scheme Progressives follow when they discover a faction they need to suppress. First, they were ridiculed. “For a Retainer, Lavish Care by ‘Boutique Doctors,’” said a headline in the New York Times in 2005. Then, they were demonized, widely attacked for their elitism, laziness, greed, and lack of fundamental medical ethics. In this latter effort, it was not difficult to find fellow physicians – generally, from the medical organizations which promulgated the New Ethics – to lead the attacks. There are countless examples. DrRich will give just two.
Anthony DeMaria, then President of the American College of Cardiology, criticized the practice of direct-pay medicine in an article in the JACC in 2005, saying, “Personally, I do not mind if people acquire yachts or personal trainers if they have enough money, nor would I object if they secured a physician at their beck and call. However, unlike yachts, health care is not discretionary, and everyone should be entitled to the same quality.” As a matter of social justice, direct-pay physicians improve healthcare quality for only some patients, and so have no place in the healthcare system.
In an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, Troyen A. Brennan (M.D., J.D., and M.P.H., so we know we’re in trouble) really gets to the point. Referring to direct-pay practices as “luxury primary care,” he notes that “traditional medical ethics is rather poorly equipped to address issues related to luxury primary care.” That is, while “traditional” medical ethics always places the individual patient first, that kind of thinking is now outmoded. “(M)ost ethicists now agree that the financial structure of health care is an important subject for ethical consideration. Access to health care, in particular, is a salient ethical issue.” Direct-pay practitioners threaten (by their elitism and the limited size of their practices), to limit access to primary care, and thus are in fundamental violation of medical ethics.
The argument here, for those who missed it (advanced by fellow physicians no less), is that, of the two competing ethical precepts now established by New Medical Ethics (i.e., the physician’s obligation to the individual patient vs. the physician’s obligation to society), clear primacy is to be given to the physician’s obligation to society. Physicians must (like it or not) participate in covert bedside healthcare rationing. Physicians who take the only path remaining to them that allows them to make the individual patient their primary obligation are to be castigated as ethically deficient.
When ridicule and demonization fail to suppress their opposition, Progressive dogma indicates it’s time to resort to force. The first pass in this regard, of course, is always to render the opposition illegal. (Actual violence is reserved for criminals who persist in their misbehavior, despite more polite efforts to get them to behave lawfully.)
Making direct-pay medical practice illegal has not been accomplished yet, but clear efforts have been made in this regard. Noting with alarm the rise of direct-pay primary care, numerous Congresspersons have issued statements of concern, suggesting that perhaps Congress should look into the propriety of such activities.
Indeed, the first step by Congress has already been taken. In 2003, as part of the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act, Congress directed the GAO to study and report on the effect of direct-pay practices on Medicare patients. The GAO did so in 2005, and a fair paraphrase of its report is as follows: “The practice of direct-pay medicine is not currently a threat to Medicare patients, because the direct-pay movement is not large enough yet to have an impact. If it does begin to have an impact on Medicare patients, action will have to be taken.” That is, direct-pay medicine was considered OK in 2005 not because it was inherently an ethical and legal form of medical practice, but simply because there were not enough practitioners at that time to significantly affect Medicare patients. The clear implication is that Congress stands ready to pass laws outlawing – or, at least, severely limiting – direct-pay practices, as soon as those practices begin to “impact” the system.
Certain state governments are not waiting for Congress to ban direct-pay practices. The state of Maryland (and a few others) have taken the creative position that, because many direct-pay practices work on a retainer basis, they meet the definition of a health insurance company. And as a health insurance company, to be considered legal entities, they have to have millions of dollars set aside to pay for unforeseen “claims.” (Interestingly, this same argument was not applied to Maryland lawyers, who also often work on a retainer model.) According to the Baltimore Sun, the state’s stance in this regard has already successfully caused several primary care physicians to abandon their plans to become retainer practitioners.
Less devious (but more draconian) than the state of Maryland is the state of Massachusetts (whose universal healthcare system, we’ve all heard, is a preview of Obamacare circa 2015). A bill is under consideration in the Massachusetts Senate (Bill 2170) which requires doctors, as a condition of their licensure, to accept payment rates as determined by the government. If it passes, it will be the first actual legislation in the U.S. to ban direct-pay medicine, if only by making it completely impracticable. (Thanks to Dr. Wes for pointing out this important development.)
Since medical licensing is controlled by the various states, of course, it would take 50 bills like the one in Massachusetts to really get rid of direct-pay healthcare. But there are other ways for the Feds to accomplish the same thing. Now that the federal government directly controls all student loans, for instance, it would be a simple matter to make those loans contingent on agreeing to become primary care doctors working strictly within the government controlled system, or to offer loan forgiveness for doctors who agree to do so, or to rescind favorable re-payment conditions (retroactively, and decades after the fact, if necessary) for doctors who go to a direct-pay model later in life.
DrRich does not really know how the Progressives will actually place the final nail in the coffin of the doctor-patient relationship. All he knows is that they have – well, more than the desire – the deep and abiding need to kill that relationship, once and for all. Unless we the people decide we ought to stop them, this is going to happen.
DrRich wishes to congratulate Bob Doherty of the ACP Advocate Blog for his victory over the Covert Rationing Blog in the 2009 Weblog Award Competition, in the category of Best Health Policy/Ethics Blog. As DrRich has said before, Doherty is a gentleman and a fine writer, and anyone who has read his blog will see right away that he is a worthy victor.
And now DrRich must turn to his loyal readers, to try to assuage what must be their bitter disappointment. We are, many of us, surprised, if not stunned, by the outcome of this vote. After all, the Covert Rationing Blog led the voting by a reasonably substantial margin throughout most of the two-and-a-half-week voting period, and indeed remained with a comfortable lead when most of us retired last night (Sunday, Feb. 14). Then upon awakening this morning, we find that our worthy competitor had received a truly impressive onslaught of last-minute votes, in the few hours before the polls closed at midnight, to secure the win.
DrRich cannot, of course, completely wipe out the disappointment for most of you. The pain, understandably, must be far too deep for mere words to vanquish. But allow DrRich to leave you with some thoughts to ponder as you work to resolve your frustration.
1) This election result merely reflects modern American political reality. While it is commonly said that, in elections, the winning strategy is to “Vote early and vote often,” the more assured path to victory is, “He who tabulates his votes last votes best.” That is, don’t let the opposition know how many votes you have until you yourself know how many votes you need. This rule was established by Mayor Daley (the original one) in the presidential election of 1960, and it has held up very nicely for 50 years. The ACP, which is largely a political organization, may be aware of this axiom.
2) For those who believe that the last-minute, stroke-of-midnight outpouring of support for the ACP (on a Sunday! on Valentine’s Day!) seems suspicious, remember who you are dealing with here. This may be difficult for readers of the Covert Rationing Blog – who tend to be salt-of-the-earth, red-blooded, lusty folks, who (no doubt) spent the last few hours of Valentine’s Day with their loved ones doing, well, Valentine-y things – to understand. But you’re dealing with doctors here, and not with the let’s-just-go-cut-the-damned-thing-out surgery types, either. You’re dealing with internal medicine specialists. These are the guys (and girls) you knew in college who looked forward to football Saturdays because the library would always be so much quieter. It is not so unreasonable to visualize the ACP membership entering into their Blackberries a few weeks ago a notice to vote for the ACP at 11:59 PM on February 14. They knew they would probably be logged on to their computers at that moment anyway, reading the latest research on the complement cascade.
3) It would have been greatly embarrassing for the ACP to lose in this vote, while it was not at all embarrassing for the Covert Rationing Blog to lose. DrRich took great pains to make it so, what with his loud, persistent (and, if you’re the ACP, annoying) challenge to the New Ethics promulgated by the ACP. Especially when the ACP made a fairly ineffective and dismissive early effort to respond to DrRich, and then assiduously ignored him thereafter, DrRich did not think for a moment that this large and influential organization would allow this embarrassment to happen. Anyway, by virtue of the ACP’s victory, there is much less embarrassment in the universe today than otherwise would have been the case. And that’s a good thing.
4) DrRich never really believed he would be able to beat the mighty ACP in this competition. Their resources are simply too great. His only chance of victory, he understood from the beginning, would have been to remain entirely silent about the Weblog award, and hope the ACP did not take much notice of it. But instead, DrRich decided to use the fortuitous occasion of being named a co-finalist with the ACP in a medical ethics competition to call them out on medical ethics. By relentlessly poking away at what might otherwise have remained a sleeping giant, DrRich assured his own loss. But, dear readers, getting the ACP to respond publicly to this challenge was far more rewarding, and far more important, than winning a Weblog award. DrRich, for one, feels more firmly now than ever (based on that anemic response) about the ethical bankruptcy of the New Ethics.
In this process, DrRich hopes he was able to call the dangers of the New Ethics to the attention of at least a few of his readers – especially some of the patients who have become entirely marginalized by the New Ethics, and some of the doctors who are considering extricating themselves from the quagmire, and re-establishing the doctor-patient relationship outside the traditional system. If so, the experience will have been very worthwhile and very satisfying.
DrRich would like to thank the people at medGadget for selecting him as a finalist, and especially for selecting the ACP as a co-finalist; and he would particularly like to thank all the hundreds of people who went out of their way to vote for the Covert Rationing Blog. The magnitude of your support – which (judging from the evidence) may have required an extraordinary last-minute effort on the part of the mighty ACP to eke out a face-saving victory – is truly humbling.
Regular readers will know that Dr. Virginia Hood, Chair of the American College of Physician’s Center for Ethics, Professionalism and Human Rights, has responded on behalf of the ACP to DrRich’s challenge to debate the New Ethics being promulgated by the ACP (and sister organizations) – and that the ACP’s response was the functional equivalent of an ethics Dear John letter.
The gist of this formal reply was: “There is no ethical issue here at all. It is quite surprising that anybody would take issue with the New Ethics. And indeed “nobody” has.”
DrRich, suitably brushed off, has already delivered his analysis of the ACP’s statement, a disappointing statement which left the fundamental ethical question (namely, why the New Ethics has rendered covert bedside rationing the ethical duty of physicians) not only unanswered, but unacknowledged. So much for the proposed “debate.”
So DrRich, who back in the day was the recipient of his rightful share of Dear John letters, knows his role here. The ACP is preening for the office of Virgin Queen of the Prom, and DrRich – the jilted boyfriend who knows she’s been sleeping with the lacrosse team – is supposed to keep out of the way and shut up. And so, while he reserves the right to elaborate on some of the more surprising implications of the New Ethics, he recognizes that the ACP (and likely the 120 other physician organizations that have signed on to this manifesto) are very satisfied with their new ethical standards, and are not interested in revisiting them.
But before finally leaving the ACP entirely to its own devices, dear readers, DrRich hopes you will forgive him if he cannot resist commenting on just one more, particularly curious aspect of Dr. Hood’s reply. He refers to her remarkable injunction that, in order to meet their new ethical obligation towards the fair distribution of society’s resources, physicians should engage in “parsimonious care.”
DrRich was pretty sure he knew what parsimonious meant, of course. But the fact that the Chair of the ACP’s Center for Ethics (&c.) was now specifically enjoining doctors to practice medicine parsimoniously made DrRich wonder if perhaps he’d gotten it wrong. So he decided he’d better look it up.
The common meaning for parsimonious, and the only meaning supplied by most dictionaries (such as Webster’s New World Dictionary) conveys the sense of stinginess, or extreme frugality. Other dictionaries and thesauruses suggest: excessively unwilling to spend, ungenerous, penurious, penny-pinching, miserly, sparing, grasping, tight, close, niggardly, illiberal, mean, avaricious, covetous, and tight-assed. Illustrated dictionaries are likely to show a picture of Jack Benny or pre-ghost-of-Christmas-Future Ebeneezer Scrooge, though children’s dictionaries will likely depict Scrooge McDuck, and if progressives had their own dictionary (and they certainly need one of their own), they would show a Republican elephant.
So it would certainly appear that the “parsimonious care” which Dr. Hood urges physicians to adopt hardly seems the kind of medical care patients would hope to receive, or that most doctors would aspire to give.
Perhaps, one might think, Dr. Hood simply misspoke in this instance. Indeed, if one can manage to work one’s way through the entire sentence (which reads, “Parsimonious care that utilizes the most efficient means to effectively diagnose a condition and treat a patient respects the need to use resources wisely and to help ensure that resources are equitably available.”), it might be just possible to believe that perhaps she only meant “efficient.” And (one might speculate) in her hurry to toss off a quick reply to DrRich this past Sunday, no doubt so that she could get back to the Pro Bowl, she simply chose the wrong word inadvisedly.
But that’s not what happened. Dr. Hood did not misspeak. In fact, these words are not hers. She is quoting here directly from a key part of the ACP’s Ethics Manual.
Bear in mind that before it ever saw the light of day, the Ethics Manual received extremely close scrutiny. The Ethics Manual is a document whose every syllable has gone through numerous and careful edits and revisions, by many well-educated experts. And experts on ethics, out of all the multitudes of wordsmiths residing in the academy, are the most careful and precise with their choice of words. The use of “parsimonious” was not an error, nor could it have been a subliminal choice. Like every other word in the Ethics Manual, “parsimonious” was very carefully considered, and was specifically chosen for its precise meaning. And therefore we can only conclude that what the ACP ethicists mean when they urge parsimonious care is: parsimonious care.
And most assuredly, parsimonious does not mean merely “efficient.” Indeed, the carefully-engineered sentence in which this word appears tells us that, while “parsimonious care” certainly encompasses efficiency, it’s something more than just efficient care. Efficient care is to parsimonious care as fondness is to lust; as a gentle spring rain is to a deadly deluge. “Parsimonious” crosses that line which converts a virtue to a vice.
So yes, the ACP Ethics Manual exhorts physicians to efficient care; but also to something well beyond just efficient care – to parsimonious care. To miserly care; to penurious care; to grasping, tight, close, niggardly, illiberal, mean, avaricious, covetous and tight-assed care.
But, of course, only for the benefit of society as a whole.
Now, if we were actually engaging in a debate (which of course, he recognizes, we are not), DrRich would smugly turn to his opponent at this point and make the following summation: “Since the ‘parsimonious care’ you champion is quite consistent with the new Social Justice mandate as interpreted by me (i.e., a mandate to ration healthcare at the bedside), but not so much with the Social Justice mandate as interpreted by you (i.e., a mandate only to be efficient), I rest my case.” (Note: DrRich is courteous enough not to refer to himself in the third person when engaged in a one-on-one exchange, as that would seem impolite and arrogant.)
Then, DrRich would simply end this post, and wait for the ACP (presumably this time in consultation with the Chair of the ACP’s Center for Lexicography) to attempt painfully to assemble some sort of rebuttal.
Last week, DrRich noted that the Covert Rationing Blog and the ACP Advocate Blog were named as co-finalists in 2009 Medical Weblog Award Competition, in the category of Best Health Policy/Ethics Blog. (Voting continues through Feb. 14.) DrRich, ever the opportunist, latched on to this fortuitous occasion to issue a challenge to Bob Doherty, author of the ACP Advocate blog, to engage in a debate over that very topic – medical ethics. He made this audacious challenge because the ACP is a chief signatory of a new code of “medical ethics for a new millennium,” formally promulgated in 2002 by an international group of medical professional organizations (a grouping DrRich has called – for convenience sake only – the Millennialists). And DrRich has taken great exception to this New Ethics, which, he asserts, does great damage to the doctor-patient relationship and to the medical profession. (DrRich details his objection to the New Ethics here, and describes the right way to do medical ethics here.)
A few days ago Mr. Doherty (who is also the ACP’s Senior Vice President of Governmental Affairs and Public Policy), graciously agreed to engage in this discussion, and promised to do so after consulting with the ACP’s Committee on Ethics, Professionalism, and Human Rights.
DrRich had hoped that Mr. Doherty would reply with a post on his ACP blog, which (since it likely has a vastly greater readership than the CRB), would more effectively give this topic some much-needed airing – and in particular, might engage some of the ACP’s membership (specialists in internal medicine) in this important discussion. DrRich was disappointed, then, when the reply came today in the form of a comment, which was tacked on to a long queue of reader’s comments at the end of DrRich’s posting.
DrRich was also very disappointed by the content of the reply which, fundamentally, was: This is a non-issue, and even if it was an issue, it’s now a settled issue. (So go away.)
Because he fears that his readers may not find the ACP’s response (buried as it is), DrRich will post it here in its entirety. But first he will very briefly summarize his complaint against the New Ethics promulgated by the ACP and other Millennialists. The New Ethics takes classical medical ethics (which obligates doctors to always place the welfare of their individual patients first) and adds on to it a new ethical obligation, called Social Justice, which obligates doctors to work toward “the fair distribution of healthcare resources.” This new obligation (which is to society) will inherently conflict, at least some of the time, with the physician’s traditional obligation to the individual patient. So, under the New Ethics, the doctor’s loyalty is now officially divided. DrRich asserts that this divided loyalty (which is now declared to be entirely ethical) leaves the patient in a dangerous position, and breaks the profession of medicine.
In the ACP’s response Mr. Doherty begins: “I asked Dr. Virginia Hood, chair of ACP’s Committee on Ethics, Professionalism, and Human Rights, to respond to Dr. Rich’s post. Her reply is below:”
We are surprised to see the comments about ACP and medical ethics. We urge readers to read the actual text of the ACP Ethics Manual (the College’s Code of Ethics) and the Professionalism Charter, which the College’s Foundation helped develop. Both say that social justice is a consideration in medical ethics, but the physician’s primary responsibility is to his or her patient. Resource allocation decisions are policy decisions and are most appropriately made at the system level, not at the bedside. The Ethics Manual discusses at length the clinician’s primary role as an advocate for individual patients. But it also notes the duty to practice effective health care and use resources responsibly, which are not incompatible with being a patient advocate. As the Manual notes, physicians should not overtest or otherwise overuse services:
Physicians have a responsibility to practice effective and efficient health care and to use health care resources responsibly. Parsimonious care that utilizes the most efficient means to effectively diagnose a condition and treat a patient respects the need to use resources wisely and to help ensure that resources are equitably available [i].
This is nothing new. Indeed using “effective and efficient health care and health care resources responsibly” for all patients is one way to minimize rationing as the result of an over costly system. The Manual also says that physicians and their professional societies should work toward ensuring access to health care for all and the elimination of discrimination, and deficiencies in availability and quality, in health care services. Likewise, the Charter on Medical Professionalism endorsed by ACP and 120 other medical organizations in the USA and internationally, states that professionalism involves commitments to improving quality of care, improving access to care, eliminating discrimination in health care, and yes, to a just distribution of finite resources. But the Charter explains the commitment to a fair distribution of finite resources as follows:
While meeting the needs of individual patients, physicians are required to provide health care that is based on the wise and cost-effective management of limited clinical resources. They should be committed to working with other physicians, hospitals, and payers to develop guidelines for cost-effective care. The physician’s professional responsibility for appropriate allocation of resources requires scrupulous avoidance of superfluous tests and procedures. The provision of unnecessary services not only exposes one’s patients to avoidable harm and expense but also diminishes the resources available for others [ii].
The patient-physician relationship and our medical ethics are the soul of medicine. The blog commentators are correct– it is important that we get it right.
Virginia Hood, MD, FACP
Chair, American College of Physicians Ethics, Professionalism and Human Rights Committee
As much as DrRich may feel he has been condescended to here (as if the ACP has found a fly buzzing around its head and has attempted to swat it away), and recognizing that the ACP has decided not to engage in a give-and-take (which, of course is their prerogative), but rather, has responded with a brush-off statement which they have chosen to bury in the comments section of DrRich’s obscure blog (which is also their prerogative), DrRich will attempt to reply as politely and as analytically as possible. (He does, however, sincerely hope that Mr. Doherty – who really seems like a good person and is an excellent writer – will not be called to the woodshed for obligating an august Ethics Committee Chairperson from this prestigious organization to issue a formal response to an annoying blogger such as himself.)
Dr. Hood’s artful (and dismissive, it seems to DrRich) statement can be fairly summarized thusly: After beginning with the implication that DrRich is making much ado (about nothing), and that she is surprised that anyone would dissent from ACP’s New Ethics, she says that the New Ethics does not entail the problem that DrRich alleges; indeed, there really is nothing new about it. Of course patients come first. (Just study the various documents the ACP has published on this point.) Cost-effective and efficient care is a part of good medicine, and always has been. What we mean by a fair distribution of finite resources is to practice medicine wisely, so as not to waste resources and not to expose patients to the risk of medical services they do not need. The legitimacy of the New Ethics is supported by the fact that it has been formally adopted by 120 medical organizations internationally (which to DrRich means that when you go to a doctor anywhere, this is the code of ethics under which they are now officially practicing).
There is a lot in her statement DrRich could comment on, but he does not want to bore his readers with a lengthy parsing of this finely crafted response. Rather, he will just talk about its main point.
Fundamentally, Dr. Hood is denying that there’s any problem. There’s no conflict between “the fair distribution of healthcare resources” and doing what’s best for individual patients – and furthermore, she’s surprised anyone would think so.
DrRich does not accuse her of sophistry. Perhaps she is just deceived.
The fact that there are huge conflicts between providing individuals with all the healthcare that would likely be useful to them, and the inability of society to pay for such a thing, is the fundamental problem with the public funding of healthcare. We simply can’t afford to buy everybody all the healthcare that would likely benefit them. There’s not enough money in the world to do that.
Consider just a few of the examples DrRich has discussed here over the years. Implantable defibrillators have been shown to significantly improve the survival of a substantial minority of patients who have heart disease, and indeed guidelines issued by cardiologists’ professional organizations indicate that defibrillators ought to be implanted at a rate of about five times their current actual implant rate. But if doctors actually did that, it would cost Medicare an extra $7 – $8 billion each year. Then there’s the fact that if doctors used the statin drug Crestor in the way the very well-designed and compelling JUPITER trial says doctors should use it, we would be spending an extra $10 billion per year on Crestor. In a thousand ways, the “best” healthcare for the individual is very often not cheaper (or better for society) than less-good healthcare, and DrRich is impressed that Dr. Hood is willing to say that it is.
Dr. Hood would likely deal with this problem, and implies so, by devising “guidelines” that doctors would be ethically obligated to follow. Obviously, it is entirely possible to convert “guidelines” from just that (i.e., a set of guidelines which doctors ought to take into strong account when deciding what’s best for their individual patients) into a set of formal rules that must be followed, and which will then be enforced by federal regulators (and their posse of ethicists). Indeed, such “guidelines” might be one of the ways in which society imposes its own goals over those of individual patients. But that is not the same thing as insisting that individual patients (who often do not fit the “average” profile) will necessarily profit if doctors always follow the guidelines as a matter of policy, or of enforced expectations, or of “quality”.
(Further, as DrRich has pointed out, the rapidly developing paradigm in which “guidelines” are becoming inviolate rules has led competing organizations to rush to issue their own sets of competing guidelines, that best comport with their individual agendas. While this phenomenon of “guideline wars” is endlessly amusing, it may not always serve the best interests of doctors or their patients.)
And then there’s the problem that, no matter how you define “waste” or “inefficiency” or “unnecessary care,” there simply cannot be enough of it to account for the runaway healthcare inflation we’re seeing (as DrRich has shown here). A substantial proportion of this fiscally disastrous healthcare inflation must necessarily derive from the delivery of healthcare that is actually useful.
So the crux of Dr. Hood’s reply – that all the ACP is talking about when it mandates that doctors fairly distribute limited resources is that they ought to practice good medicine, and if they did that simple thing no useful therapy would need to be withheld from any individual patient – is absurd on its face.
DrRich would be less disturbed by Dr. Hood’s assertion if he really thought it was simply a misapprehension of the truth. And perhaps it is. After all, her statement reads as if she is truly surprised that anyone would think otherwise.
Perhaps Dr. Hood came to her high station within the ACP’s Ethics Committee very recently, and is unaware of the history of the new Professionalism Charter which advanced this New Ethics, or of the controversy that was raised by many critics at the time of its adoption, or indeed, of some of the language that was in its penultimate version (and that was likely removed to silence some of those critics). Indeed, she cannot be aware if it, since she is “surprised to see” that anyone is bothered by the Charter, and since she believes that questioning it is but “much ado.” But to anyone who knows a little of that history, Dr. Hood’s assertion that controversy over this Charter is a novel experience, or most especially, her assertion that this New Ethics is really “nothing new,” would come as a very great surprise indeed.
First, we should note, if the new Professionalism Charter was really “nothing new,” and was just a restatement of the physician’s traditional obligation to place the patient first, and if fairly distributing society’s resources really was just a matter of practicing good medicine, then there would have been no need for a new Charter of medical ethics in the first place. And certainly the need would not have been pressing. It would have served quite nicely instead to produce some sort of document reminding doctors that unneeded healthcare services expose their patients to unneeded risk, so (based on the traditional ethical precept of patient welfare), to remain ethical they must stop being wasteful. Certainly, this kind of wasteful medicine would not produce a need to redefine medical ethics.
But the new Charter’s very first sentence describes something more dire, more pressing, than can be explained by Dr. Hood’s benign assertions. It 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.” So: the whole purpose of this new Charter, its entire impetus, was the frustration of physicians.
Frustration? What frustration is that? Interestingly, the document does not come right out and say it. The closest it comes to spelling it out is to say, “We share the view that medicine’s commitment to the patient is being challenged by external forces of change within our societies.”
But even though the document seems strangely reticent about spelling out which 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 that the only revolutionary change in the document is an addition to the code of medical ethics requiring physicians to work for “the fair distribution of healthcare resources.” We can only conclude that this new ethical obligation is meant as a cure for that foundational frustration, and that therefore this frustration must be that doctors are finding it impossible to meet their traditional ethical obligation to to place their patients’ needs first.
But, as it happens, we do not really have to resort to this sort of documentary detective work to parse out the purpose of the new Professionalism Charter. That purpose was quite open at the time this document was being developed – and it produced robust controversy that was certainly no secret. One can read about this controversy in many places, but for our purposes now (i.e., in replying to Dr. Hood’s assertion that there’s nothing new here, and that it is a matter of some astonishment that anyone would find the Physicians Charter controversial) it might be best to refer to one of the ACP’s own publications from that time.
An article in the July, 2001 ACP-ASIM Observer, which was entitled, “Charter on medical professionalism addresses issues of finite resources,” goes into some length about the controversy. And it is very plain that the objection many raised to the new Charter was precisely that which DrRich is raising now in his challenge to the ACP: that the New Ethics being espoused in the Professionalism Charter fundamentally and explicitly divides the loyalty of the physician between the patient’s needs and society’s needs. When one listens to the defenders of the new Charter (quoted extensively in the ACP-ASIM Observer article), one finds the unmistakable tones of utilitarianism: We have to change our ethical precepts, the argument goes, because that’s just the way the world works now.
This article also indicates that the draft of the Physicians Charter presented to ACP general membership at their annual meeting in 2001, a few months before the final version was finally published, was perhaps more forthcoming than the final version, regarding what it was really all about. For instance, this nearly-final version of the Charter specifically admonished physicians that they must “be aware that the decisions they make about individual patients have an impact on the resources available to others.” One can only assume that this sort of explicit language was taken out of that final version in response to the critics (who were many, and vocal) to soften the blow.
Indeed, the “softer” language of this strange final version (which has all the hallmarks of a heavily edited document, beginning as it does with a heartfelt cry against the frustrations being experienced by physicians, then neglecting to spell out what those frustrations are, and never explicitly saying which aspect of the document addresses those frustrations), is now possibly soft enough, if not read carefully, to allow defenders of the Professionalism Charter to get away with asserting (as Dr. Hood has done) that the New Ethics is really pretty much the same as the old ethics, and does not change anything. (So move along, move along.)
But the New Ethics changes everything.
DrRich is very sorry about this, and is especially sorry that the ACP’s Ethics Committee, and the other 120 physicians organizations that have adopted this New Ethics, insist they do not see a problem here. DrRich assumes by this response that the ACP has little interest in revisiting its new ethical stance, and further, is undoubtedly busily training today’s medical students that doing what’s best for society is the same as doing what’s best for the individual.
This is a theme, DrRich thinks, he’s heard a lot lately.
Patients who want a true advocate in their life-and-death encounters with the healthcare system, an advocate whose loyalty is not divided between them and a society that, with increasing desperation, wants not to spend its money on them, had better go out and hire their own. Your doctor will now find it officially unethical to serve that office him-or-herself.
And meanwhile, we can now be sure that the physicians organizations which are responsible for protecting the ethical foundation of the profession of medicine are quite satisfied with the job they are doing.
In his last post, and not without some little trepidation over the propriety of doing so, DrRich offered to enter into a “constructive dialogue” with Bob Doherty of the ACP Advocate Blog, regarding the important topic of medical ethics. What occasioned this offer was the fortuitous selection of each of us as finalists in the 2009 Medical Weblog Award Competition, in the category of Best Health Policy/Ethics Blog.
Ever since the inception of the Covert Rationing Blog (and even before that, in his book) DrRich has taken strong exception to the new code of “medical ethics for a new millennium,” formally promulgated in 2002 by the American College of Physicians and several of its equally respected sister organizations (a grouping DrRich has termed the Millennialists). And when he saw that the ACP Advocate Blog (an official publication of a principle component of the Millennialists) had become a co-finalist for a Weblog Award in the category of medical ethics, DrRich could not resist offering to engage in a discussion over same.
DrRich is delighted to report that Bob Doherty, who, in addition of being the author of the ACP Advocate Blog, is also the ACP’s Senior Vice President of Governmental Affairs and Public Policy, has graciously agreed to the suggested exchange of ideas. Mr. Doherty reports that he will be posting a reply to DrRich’s “challenge,” once he finishes consulting with the ACP’s Center for Ethics, Professionalism and Human Rights. And so, dear readers, it appears that DrRich (your humble correspondent) has gotten himself into a situation. It appears he will be engaging – at his own instigation, no less – with actual, certified experts on medical ethics, regarding the topic: medical ethics.
DrRich can almost hear some of his loyal readers gasping: “Why, he’ll be skinned alive!”
But fear not. DrRich will not hurt him. DrRich does not flay anybody, and promises to remain entirely civil and friendly in this exchange. DrRich, upon his honor, will see to it that Mr. Doherty (and whatever friends he may enlist in the cause) will emerge from this encounter entirely intact, integumentarily speaking.
In fact, to show his great good faith (and to level the playing field), DrRich will now break with all the conventions of debate, and before Mr. Doherty posts his reply, will lay the rest of his cards upon the table, so that the opposition will have the advantage of knowing ALL of DrRich’s arguments before they commit themselves to an answer. That is how dedicated DrRich is to keeping this competition friendly and respectful and fair.
DrRich’s Argument So Far
In his previous, challenge-issuing post, DrRich described how the “New Ethics” advanced by the Millennialists obligates the physician to strive for the ethical precept of Social Justice, which is to say, for “the fair distribution of healthcare resources.” So the doctor is now charged with deciding which patients may receive, and which may not receive, certain healthcare resources. To say it another way, under this new conception of medical ethics the doctor is assigned the duty to ration healthcare, covertly, at the bedside.
DrRich further described how this New Ethics fundamentally wrecks the doctor-patient relationship, and thus leaves patients to their own devices within a hostile healthcare system. In addition DrRich asserted that, once they adopted this New Ethics, physicians surrendered their claim to the title “professional,” and accordingly, made themselves fair game to whatever treatment, tactic, or travesty that any more powerful interest group (such as trial lawyers or Congress or regulators or insurers) may choose to foist upon them. Physicians no longer have any ethical standing for turning such attacks aside. Rather, as non-professionals, their ability to withstand attacks can only be proportionate to whatever socioeconomic or political pressure they can muster. So, as DrRich sees it, the New Ethics promulgated by the Millennialists is pretty much a disaster for both doctors and patients.
This is the extent of the argument DrRich has advanced so far.
Here Are The Rest Of DrRich’s Cards
The Millennialists did get one thing right in this effort. They correctly diagnosed the fact that old-fashioned, “classic” medical ethics, as advantageous as it may have been to both patients and doctors, is no longer consistent with reality.
Under classical medical ethics, the doctor’s one and only ethical obligation was to the individual patient. And so, classic ethics did not allow for any limits whatsoever on the medical services a patient may receive. If some bit of available medical care might offer even a small nugget of hope, doctors were obligated to provide it, no matter how expensive it might be to do so.
It is important to recognize that classic medical ethics evolved during a time when medical technology was relatively primitive, limited, and cheap, and more importantly, at a time when patients paid for their own healthcare. So when classic medical ethics was formulated, “healthcare spending limits” (though nobody talked in such terms back then), were self-imposed, by the patient.
But over the past 60 years medical technology has become very advanced and very expensive. And even more to the point, we have evolved a payment system in which people who receive healthcare are spending not their own funds, but rather, are spending publicly-funded, pooled resources. (Those pooled resources are either funded directly through the government, or are subsidized by the public indirectly, through tax-deductable insurance premiums).
It is this collective funding arrangement that has made classic medical ethics obsolete. It is neither feasible nor ethical to leave all decisions on how to spend society’s pooled healthcare dollars to individual doctors and individual patients, who can “take” as much of this pooled resource as they think they’d like to have, with absolutely no constraints. Such an arrangement eventually and inevitably leads to fiscal ruin.
By the 1990s, because spending limits were absolutely necessary, but at the same time classic medical ethics precluded setting such limits, doctors were being coerced by the private insurers and government payers to establish those limits covertly, through bedside rationing. This was the problem faced by the Millennialists when they set out to reformulate medical ethics, and they were right to make the attempt.
But unfortunately, this is where the Millennialists dropped the ball and, as DrRich has shown, settled upon an answer that just made things worse.
The Right Medical Ethics
Medical ethics would be “right” if it could be made to comport with the classic notion that the doctor’s primary obligation is to his/her individual patients (thus preserving the classic doctor-patient relationship), and yet still respected society’s need to control the spending of its pooled resources. That is, the “right” ethics will recognize both society’s needs and the needs of individual patients, will recognize that those two sets of legitimate needs are often in conflict, and will provide an ethical framework for resolving these conflicts.
That ethical framework, DrRich is pleased to announce, is not that hard to conceptualize.
We can solve this problem if we think of the ethics of healthcare as being organized into two concentric spheres. The outer sphere holds the ethical precepts adopted by society to guide the behavior of the healthcare system for the benefit of the entire population; for example, to set overall limits on spending. These outer-sphere precepts help to ensure that the needs of society as a whole are served in an ethical manner by the healthcare system.
Contained within (and therefore subject to) that outer sphere of societal precepts is an inner sphere, which holds the ethical precepts that govern the behavior of individual doctors and patients within the healthcare system. Inner-sphere precepts help to ensure that the rights and needs of individual patients are addressed in an ethical manner.
So, while the physician’s primary ethical obligation must always be for the benefit of the individual patient, and therefore the physician must operate according to ethical precepts that honor this duty to individual patients (the inner-sphere precepts), their behavior must also conform with the ethical constraints imposed by society on the entire population (the outer-sphere precepts).
We can think of the inner-sphere precepts as an immutable core of ethical beliefs that serve the fundamental American commitment to the autonomy of the individual, and of the outer sphere as a coating, fashioned by society and therefore changeable, that places an adjustable (and ethically derived) limit on the individual’s ability to consume pooled resources.
The Inner Sphere – Ethical Precepts For Individuals
The inner sphere of ethical precepts – the core – fully preserves the two precepts of classic medical ethics: the precept of Patient Welfare, which requires the doctor to always act to the benefit of his/her individual patient; and the precept of Patient Autonomy, which requires the doctor to respect the individual patient’s right to medical self-determination. So the inner sphere precepts completely restore the physician’s sacred obligation to the interests of their individual patients. And thus, also restored are both the classic doctor-patient relationship, and medical professionalism.
But while individual welfare and individual autonomy are critical (and comprise the chief ethical obligations of the physician), there are still legitimate limits to what the patient (and doctor) can reasonably expect to receive from pooled resources. When a patient demands that everything possible be done for them, they are exceeding the bounds of autonomy if doing “everything” means that other individuals would thereby be deprived of what otherwise would be rightfully their fair share of those pooled resources. These necessary bounds on individual autonomy are defined by the outer sphere.
The Outer Sphere – Ethical Precepts For Society.
Under any equitable healthcare system we are going to have to carefully define our outer sphere ethical norms, because those are the standards that bound and govern the inner-sphere behaviors of individual doctors and patients. This “outer sphere ethics” is also comprised of two ethical precepts, Societal Beneficence and Distributive Justice.
Societal Beneficence (or social welfare) requires the healthcare system to attempt to maximize the overall public good realized from whatever pooled resources society expends on healthcare. Social welfare is not the same as patient welfare, because what is optimal for an individual patient may often reduce the overall benefit to society, and vice versa.
Distributive Justice requires the benefits of the healthcare system to be distributed fairly, that is, in a way that does not discriminate against individuals or groups based on who they are.
The outer-sphere precepts honor society’s right to accrue optimal benefits from whatever collective resources society provides toward healthcare. That is, the outer-sphere precepts recognize society’s legitimate interest in limiting and equitably distributing those collective resources – and indeed, recognizes its ethical obligation to do so.
Medical Ethics And the Spheres
With this framework it is easy to see why the American healthcare system is presently inequitable and unethical. A hallmark of our present system is the lack (thanks to our culture of no limits) of any attempt to define effective outer-sphere societal norms, which would bound the appropriate behavior of individual physicians and patients. This deficiency makes it entirely feasible, and very common, for some patients to soak up a disproportionate share of publicly funded healthcare resources, while others (though they are also paying into the system) are left with next to nothing.
Achieving equity should have nothing whatever to do with adjusting the inner-sphere precepts. Individuals in the United States (to paraphrase the Declaration of Independence) have a self-evident right to their individual autonomy. The inner-sphere precepts are granted to us by our founding documents, and as Americans we should avoid modifying the inner-sphere precepts at all costs, since, once we do, we are abandoning our foundational principles. (This means that the Millennialists have done more damage, with their New Ethics, than merely harming doctors and patients. They have begun – or continued – undermining the principle of individual autonomy upon which the United States was founded. ) (Sorry to have to mention it.)
It is the outer-sphere precepts – those that can be negotiated legitimately by society, and which can legitimately limit the scope of inner-sphere behaviors – that we need to get into proper order.
A properly functioning system of medical ethics, therefore, would require society to devise workable outer-sphere precepts, and through these ethical precepts, establish transparent rules for setting necessary limits on collective healthcare spending. Then, within that system of rules, doctors and patients would work together, under a fully restored doctor-patient relationship, to assure that every patient has access to all legitimately available medical options. And the doctor would be allowed (and expected) to leave no stone unturned in obtaining those legitimate medical services for his/her patient.
This arrangement is analogous to the attorney-client relationship, where the attorney, acting within the bounds imposed by the law (outer sphere norms), is expected to do everything within his/her power to see that the client gains every conceivable, allowable advantage (inner sphere behavior) as they navigate the complex legal system.
To further illustrate this point, we Americans are now engaged in a debate over whether the Christmas Underwear Bomber ought to be eligible to receive all the legal protections afforded to an American citizen under the law. It is notable that ALL the discussion in this case is in regard to whether American outer-sphere legal norms should apply to the terrorist. Nobody is suggesting that his attorney ought to abrogate his (or her, as the case may be) sacred “inner-sphere” obligations to this client, in order to achieve some sort of “fair distribution” of society’s legitimate interests. Nobody expects the terrorist’s attorney to refrain from advising him remain silent, for instance, even though that silence may expose us all to substantial additional harm. The lawyer’s inner-sphere obligations are secure, even here. Rather, the argument we’re having is strictly limited to how we should apply outer-sphere legal protections to this case.
It is the right argument to have. And it’s the very argument we should be having in regard to medical ethics.
And as much as DrRich does not like lawyers, he very much admires the tenacity with which they have preserved their fiduciary relationship with their clients – even in cases like this one. If physicians (and their organizations) had behaved with the professional integrity displayed by the despised attorneys, doctors and their patients would be in much less difficulty today.
It is instructive to re-consider the New Ethics, which now has been formally implemented by the Millennialists, in light of DrRich’s proposed two-sphere system of ethics (which he audaciously labels “right ethics,” but to show his humility he will not use caps). The New Ethics can be seen to have resulted by the simple expedient of moving the outer-sphere principles of Societal Beneficence and Distributive Justice (lumped together as Social Justice) down into the inner sphere, where individual doctors are expected to deal with them.
You can’t actually do that, of course, because these are intrinsically outer-sphere norms. But nonetheless, New Ethics formally puts doctors into the position of having to serve the best interest of their patients (individual beneficence and autonomy) while at the same time, covertly rationing their patients’ healthcare (societal beneficence and distributive justice). It is quite impossible for individual physicians to reconcile these competing interests in any equitable sense, and charging them with the job of doing so is illogical, nonsensical – and (DrRich respectfully submits) unethical.
Doctors and patients would be much better served if physicians’ professional organizations, such as the ACP, would revisit their new-age Physician’s Charter on ethics. DrRich understands that our modern society is exceedingly reluctant to establish outer-sphere rules for limiting pooled healthcare resources, and for distributing them equitably. But that reluctance is not a sufficient justification for physicians themselves, through their professional organizations, to initiate and implement new ethical standards that sacrifice their sacred obligation to their patients.
My goodness, can we not muster up at least the ethical sensibilities of lawyers?