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Medical Ethics Smack Down Part 3: The ACP Responds

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:”

Much ado?

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.

Thank you.

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.


(DrRich now thinks you should not vote either for him – since he’s particularly out of sorts about this whole ethics thing – or the ACP Blog.  Go vote for the pharma guy.)

*This blog post was originally published at The Covert Rationing Blog*

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