A Parsimonious Exegesis Of The ACP’s New Ethics Manual

DrRich | January 3rd, 2012 - 8:38 am


The American College of Physicians published the Sixth Edition of its Physicians Ethics Manual yesterday. Regular readers may find it surprising to hear DrRich say that there is little objectionable in it, and actually much to admire – that is, when it is considered as it is written, as a stand-alone document.

But of course, when it comes to statements of medical ethics in the New Millennium, one cannot rely on the face value of the written word. For the purpose of the modern medical ethicist is to supply a plausible justification for the covert rationing of healthcare. That is, they need to make it ethically justifiable (if not ethically mandatory) for doctors to ration their patients’ healthcare at the bedside. Because statements of medical ethics cannot just come out and say that, ethicists must compose these statements quite artfully, so that when somebody (like DrRich) calls them on it, they can indignantly deny any such thing.

Therefore, DrRich submits, an accurate interpretation of the ACP’s New Ethics Manual requires an exegesis – that is, it requires that we go beneath the actual words, that we explore the derivation of this text, in order to discover its true underlying meaning. Fortunately, this process will be pretty straightforward, and will not require us to have a working knowledge of Latin, Greek or Hebrew. Plain English will do, as long as we keep the true aim of the modern medical ethicist in mind.

Accordingly, we need to begin this exercise by reminding ourselves of what that true aim is. This was probably stated most clearly in a quote DrRich has used before, by Dr. Berwick and his co-author Dr. Troyen Brennan (another ACP ethics maven) in their 1995 book, “New Rules.” To wit: “Today, this isolated relationship [between doctor and patient] is no longer tenable or possible. . . Traditional medical ethics, based on the doctor-patient dyad, must be reformulated to fit the new mold of the delivery of health care. . . The primary function of regulation in health care. . .is to constrain decentralized individualized decision making.”

That is, the primary aim of the new medical ethics is to get doctors to stop focusing on the specific, unique needs of their individual patients, and instead to focus on what is best for society – which means acceding to centralized, collectivized decision making (the opposite of the decentralized, individualized decision making which the ethicists are pledged to constrain). For doctors to do so, of course, will utterly violate the primary ethical precept which the profession has followed for more than two millennia, and so, obviously, if only for the sake of appearance, will require some revision of those ethical precepts to accommodate the new reality.

And that is the program of the modern medical ethicist.

They have been at this for a long time (at least since the early 1990s), and the Sixth Edition of the ACP Ethics Manual – despite its largely benign language and even occasional retrograde pledges to the needs of the individual patient – advances the true aims of the medical ethicists to a new level. DrRich will provide three lines of evidence to support this contention.


in its section on “Professionalism,” the new Ethics Manual defers specifically to a foundational document written by the ACP and published in 2002 entitled, “Medical Professionalism in the New Millennium: A Physician Charter.” That Charter, which DrRich has critiqued in detail, established a new ethical precept which physicians must now follow – and to which they must give equal weight to their ancient duty to the best interests of their patient. That new precept is to social justice – to a just distribution of healthcare resources.

To understand the real import of this new ethical precept – which is introduced in the Charter in a determinedly bland manner – we must do a brief exegesis of the Charter itself. Notably, the first sentence of the Charter, which attempts to explain just why such a new charter on medical professionalism is needed in the first place, says, “Physicians today are experiencing frustration as changes in the health care delivery systems in virtually all industrialized countries threaten the very nature and values of medical professionalism.”

While this sentence obviously expresses the utter frustration doctors were feeling at being coerced – at the time mainly by health insurers – to withhold expensive but potentially useful healthcare services from their patients, the document itself never spells this out. Indeed, after this passionate opening sentence, no reference to any particular frustration is made again. Rather the document immediately retreats into a bland prose, and one looks in vain for the authors to spell out the cause of the dire frustration that demands a restatement of medical professionalism.

But even though the document seems strangely reticent to say what frustration produced the very impetus for its creation, we can rely on the fact that the document must be designed to cure this mysterious frustration (whatever it is), and further, that the only substantial change in the document was an addition to the code of medical ethics, adding the requirement that physicians work for social justice. Making social justice an ethical mandate for individual physicians, one can only surmise, might help relieve some of the guilt (and some of the frustration) physicians feel when they are forced to engage in bedside rationing against their patients.

The blandness of the Charter is intentional, and was added at the last minute to “soften” the blow. In an ACP policy conference held in the summer of 2001, a much more inflammatory draft of this new Charter was presented to the membership for discussion. That penultimate version made the actual intent of the document far more explicit. It said that when making decisions regarding individual patients, doctors must “be aware that the decisions they make about individual patients have an impact on the resources available to others.”  In other words, it explicitly instructed bedside rationing. To the dismay of the ethicists who had presented the draft, several ACP members at that conference reacted quite negatively to it. (Who knew that doctors still gave so much weight to ancient, outdated ethical precepts?) Because of the uproar, the language of the document was softened before its official publication. While its import remained entirely unchanged, the document was “blanded-up.” In particular, the sentence explicitly spelling out just what the authors meant by “social justice” was removed. In making their final revision, however, the authors of the Charter managed to overlook the passionate tone of that (suddenly incongruent) opening sentence, and thus left an everlasting clue as to what the document was really intended to do.

To summarize, by the turn of the millennium doctors were being coerced to withhold healthcare from their patients at the bedside, and thus to violate their time-honored primary professional directive. The intent of the 2002 Charter on medical professionalism was to repair the problem (i.e., to cure the “frustration”), not by confronting the forces of evil doing the coercion, but rather, by simply changing medical ethics to make bedside rationing OK. And that’s just what the document did, though only after careful re-editing to make this radical change to medical ethics sound as benign as possible.

By explicitly endorsing the 2002 Charter on medical professionalism, the Sixth Edition of the ACP Ethics Manual thereby endorses healthcare rationing at the bedside – but it does so quietly, at arm’s length, so as not to stir up unwanted passions.


the publication of the new Ethics Manual is accompanied by an editorial written by Ezekiel Emanuel, MD, a celebrated medical ethicist, the brother of Rahm, and a special advisor on health policy to the White House. It is widely believed that Dr. Emanuel will have a lot to say about which medical experts are going to be appointed to Obamacare’s GOD panels (Government Operatives Deliberating) – the panels that will establish the formal “guidelines” to determine which patients will get what, when and how, “guidelines” which doctors will have to follow in every particular, or be subject to fines, loss of profession, and imprisonment.

It is therefore instructive that Dr. Emanuel is effusive in his praise of this new ACP Ethics Manual. He is especially delighted that the authors have placed a statement into a special “call-out” box, so nobody can miss it, demanding that physicians, as an ethical duty owed to society, must practice efficient, parsimonious, and cost-effective healthcare.

Emanuel notes that “These positions on efficiency, parsimony, and cost-effectiveness constitute an important shift, if not in ethics then in emphasis.” Dr. Emanuel need not dissemble. It’s a shift in ethics all right – just look at the title of the document.

In other words, dear reader, we have Dr. Emanuel, one of the Supreme Beings who will be directing the GOD panels, declaring that, thanks to the new ACP Ethics Manual, doctors have now fully accepted the proposition that it is a matter of medical ethics for “cost-effectiveness” – as determined by panels of hand-picked experts – to decide whether their patient will receive a potentially beneficial medical service.

(Judging from Dr. Emanuel’s reaction to their work product, if any of the authors of this new Ethics Manual had hoped their participation might serve as their audition for one of the GOD panels, it appears their strategy might work out just fine.)


the Ethics Manual contains the injunction that doctors practice medicine “parsimoniously.”  While Dr. Emanuel is enamored by and delighted with this word, DrRich finds it at least a little disturbing.

One might speculate that by this word the ACP’s medical ethicists mean to say that doctors ought to arrive at a care plan by applying the “theory of parsimony,” best known as Occam’s Razor. If so, they are urging doctors to error.

The theory of parsimony says that when a series of observations has more than one plausible explanation, the simplest of the available explanations should be considered the “best.” This method usually works quite well when one is devising a theory to explain some phenomenon whose explanation is not a matter of dire urgency. So, for instance, any cave man from the Paleolithic Age who was fond of Occam’s Razor would have concluded, from available observational data, that the sun revolves around the earth. This conclusion was wrong, but little harm was done by it. And when it became important for us to get the movements of the heavenly bodies right (for instance, when we decided to send men to the moon), we first took care to collect additional observational data (just to make sure), and thereby we discovered just in time (a mere few hundred years before launch) that, for a million years or so, our original conclusion had been mistaken.

But Occam’s Razor is less well suited for making medical decisions, that is, in cases where current clinical evidence is consistent with more than one explanation. Here, it is likely that with some effort a discoverable, definitive, correct answer could be achieved, and it is at least possible that always choosing the “simplest” possible explanation would lead the doctor to take action (or more likely, to withhold medical services) that would cause the patient to suffer harm. Sometimes the theory of parsimony can be applied to good effect in the practice of medicine; other times it will be a disaster. Deciding when to use it is a matter of medical judgment and medical experience, best decided locally by a specific doctor on behalf of a specific patient.

The theory of parsimony clearly should not be applied as a matter of course to all medical questions, perhaps not even in most medical questions. So it would seem a shame for the ACP’s Ethics Manual to decree (“without qualifiers,” as Dr. Emanuel approvingly notes) that as a matter of medical ethics, doctors must always do so.

But perhaps the authors were not referring to the “theory of parsimony” at all. Perhaps they were just using “parsimonious” as a synonym for “efficient.” If this is the case, their error was more along the lines of a Freudian slip. For “efficient” and “parsimonious” are simply not good synonyms. Better synonyms for parsimonious would include:

  • excessively unwilling to spend,
  • ungenerous,
  • penurious,
  • penny-pinching,
  • miserly,
  • sparing,
  • grasping,
  • tight,
  • close,
  • niggardly,
  • illiberal,
  • mean,
  • avaricious,
  • covetous, or
  • tight-assed.

Efficient is to parsimonious as fondness is to lust, or as a gentle spring rain is to a deadly deluge. They may be in the same genus, but are of entirely different species.

Since the real synonyms for parsimonious are all quite descriptive of bedside healthcare rationing, DrRich submits that this carefully chosen and strongly praised word is every bit as appropriate to the occasion as Dr. Emanuel indicates. This is EXACTLY how our Central Authority wants doctors to practice medicine – parsimoniously.

In conclusion,

the wording of the new ACP Ethics Manual itself may be, with a few notable exceptions, inoffensive. But when we take the time to explore the derivation of this text, when we consider it in light of the overarching program of modern medical ethicists, and in light of the interpretations now being assigned to it by agents of the Central Authority, it is not difficult to discover its true meaning and its true significance. This document helps establish an ethical mandate for doctors to follow centralized clinical directives to the letter, and doctors who fail to comply will be guilty not only of some legalistic violation of “guidelines,” but also of behaving unethically. And almost anyone will tell you that unethical doctors are the lowest form of life; for them no punishment is too harsh, and the tiniest mercy is too kind.

This, of course, is just what we should have expected.

3 Responses to “A Parsimonious Exegesis Of The ACP’s New Ethics Manual”

  1. Government and Progressive spokesmen/women loudly proclaimed that they were going to “bend the cost curve down” for healthcare. Actually, they were talking about reducing the financial deficit in providing healthcare. They made all of those expensive promises, and there is so little money.

    The more that is needed for healthcare, the less is available for really valuable, boondoggle construction and green energy projects. So, what G and P really meant was that they were going to decrease the political expense of healthcare by raising much more money, indirectly through health insurance premiums, and by decreasing the amount of healthcare which some people want and could pay for, but which is really not good for the politicians.

    As usual, the peasants would be required to pay for the promises of the King. Even better, the evil health insurers, doctors, and hospitals will be blamed for increases in premiums instead of blaming the King. Unfortunately, the King’s Council did not consider a 2003 report that the uninsured use much less healthcare than the insured. This is reasonable, because the uninsured have to pay directly.

    So, enrolling the uninsured will double their medical costs, likely without raising any additional revenue. Those who are poor would not be paying any more than they do now, due to offered subsidies.

    More health care will be expected at more cost. There is nothing wrong with that, except that the peasants will have to pay for it, and the health care “system” will indeed become an inflexible SYSTEM administered by informed, earnest, and sympathetic bureaucrats.

    Fortunately, the supposedly really valuable projects which will deliver benefits 20 or 100 years from now will continue to receive support, through more borrowing if needed.

    === ===
    How Much Medical Care Do The Uninsured Use, And Who Pays For It?
    Health Affairs (2003) by Jack Hadley and John Holahan
    ( http://content.healthaffairs.org/content/early/2003/02/12/hlthaff.w3.66.full.pdf )

    “The full-year uninsured received about half as much care ($1,253 per person) as the privately insured received ($2,484).”
    === ===

  2. james gaulte says:


    Your record of making powerful insights and expressing them masterfully was made even better by this gem. In reading and re-reading the New Professionalism,I always came away with the troublesome thought that the entire document was a giant non sequitur. It began with the claim that docs are frustrated,did not explicate the nature of the frustration and ended with the remedy of promoting social justice.Your discussion of the changes made to soften the criticism initially expressed gives new insight (new to me) of what it was all about.They thought it would be tactically bad to honestly and clearly say that the docs’ frustrations would be eliminated by eliminating the out dated fiduciary duty to the patient.
    Medical students and house officers will be exposed and inculcated with the views expressed in the New Professionalism and are not likely to read or hear a critique or an opposing view. The dogs bark and the caravan moves on.

    • DrRich says:

      Dr. Gaulte,

      Thanks very much for your compliment. Since this praise comes from a person who has himself carried the torch, for many years, for real medical professionalism, I deeply appreciate it.


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