August 27, 2009

Problems with Medical Ethics: The Elephant

elephant2 Fifteen years ago, I did part of my first pediatric training in the pediatric clinic of St. Raphael’s Hospital in New Haven. It was a nice hospital, well-known at the time for their excellent cardiac care. It was run by the Sisters of Charity of Saint Elizabeth, an amazingly generous order that really practices charity every day by helping those who need it most. Some of the nurses were in the order. The exceptional physician who ran the pediatric clinic was kind and really smart. I still use his home-made guide to pediatric neurological exams. We got along well.

When Reyna came into the clinic, she didn’t look particularly sick, just in pain. She was clutching her abdomen. She saw one of the medical residents, higher in the feeding chain than a lowly medical student like myself. Abdominal pain is one of the most studied of medical symptoms, especially because it’s so common. One by one, the resident and I ruled out some of the things it could be. The girl was 16. We needed a pregnancy test. Oddly, there was some sort of a problem requisitioning one. In fact, the clinic didn’t have one on hand. Her pain got worse, and she was admitted to the hospital. That night, her pain worsened considerably. Blood tests showed no signs of infection. The head of the clinic told us that a pregnancy test wasn’t needed. Within a couple of days, she needed an enormous amount of intravenous morphine. Eventually, if I recall correctly, she was taken by ambulance to Yale-New Haven Hospital for emergency surgery that fixed—and ended—her ectopic pregnancy. Maybe the doctor in charge knew a lot more than me about pediatrics. But I am still affected by my memory of this girls pain. Where was his ethics committee?

Every hospital I’ve ever entered had an office for chaplains. I think this is a good thing. Not meaning to joke about it, my post about lollipops discussed my rationale for using a partly physiological and partly placebo intervention to make a child feel better. I have described my use of hypnosis to help with an anxiety disorder. I think that if a child, if any patient, will feel better after an intervention of some sort, I’d like to use it if it’s safe. For the devout, the counseling of a religious guide can make an important difference in their quality of life. I respect it and recommend it when appropriate.

There is no bigger elephant in the room in which medical ethicists sit around and sip their lattes than religion. The topic is deeply taboo, and I can’t help but wonder if my email address will be unceremoniously ripped from the bioethics listserv database.

At a major national meeting a few years ago, I went to all the sessions given in ethics. In one, a discussion was promised concerning the ethical issues of contraception counseling and prescribing for teenagers. One side brought up the sobering statistics we all know about teen pregnancy and STDs. The other side argued that since condoms only work 95% of the time, that’s a 5% failure rate. Since that’s not acceptable, the only reasonable counseling for physicians to be doing is to tell teens is that abstinence is the only effective form of contraception.

More than a decade ago, I attended Georgetown University’s Intensive Bioethics Course. It was well-organized and I learned a lot. After the first couple of days of lectures, I asked why every lecture on any topic, with no exceptions, included mentioning what The Pope had said on the subject. It was Georgetown, and I was not naive about who ran the place. But I didn’t think it was an insulting question. I really wanted to know why my patients—atheists, Jews, Hindus, and Wiccans—might be affected by this*. Are religious leaders, whether laypeople or divinely chosen, gifted in unraveling of ethical complexities by their career success?

In what way, exactly, does holding a title of religious training qualify a person to sit at the medical ethics table? Are they guided by their training or constrained by it? Do their opinions apply only to their flock? What about the rest of us?

A rigorous principle of contemporary medical ethics involves disclosure. It might be in a grey area that all the objects in your doctor’s office—the post-it notes, the clipboards, the pens, even the magazines—have the name of a drug or drug company on them, but as long as the doctor discloses all the side income, then it’s OK. (They usually don’t disclose unless required to do so. Next time you’re in the doctors office, look around. How many of these ‘gifts’ can you spot?) Do we ever disclose religious affiliation? Should we? Should doctors disclose this? Should the hospital tell you that their ethics committee which has set the policy for pregnancy testing of unmarried teenagers is made up entirely of clergy handpicked by somebody who has a whole different set of values from you? What would happen if they did? Would parents of 16-year-old girls with abdominal pain bring their daughter there for evaluation? Here’s a scary thought: maybe they would prefer to bring them there.

If there is some basic foundation of ethics based on truths we hold to be self-evident, what exactly is added by expertise in dogma?

The case I described above is a real one. It was a horrible experience for me, the resident, and of course the patient. She did fine. It was one of the most unethical events I have ever witnessed.

*I really asked the question. What was I thinking? Like Peter Riegert walking into the Dexter Lake Club in 1978's Animal House, suddenly, the huge auditorium fell completely silent. The lecturer awkwardly dismissed my question without answering it, and I was too humiliated to insist.

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