Tag Archives: ethics

Truth and Responsibility

Photo by The Climate Reality Project on Unsplash

Medical professionals are traditionally identified as purveyors of truth. In fact, truth-telling has become a cornerstone of doctor-patient relationships. In recent years, the patient’s right to autonomy seems to have trumped the doctor’s ethical obligations to beneficence and nonmaleficence1

In a recent Gallup poll2, nurses were considered the most trustworthy and ethical of all professionals for the 18th year in a row (followed by engineers, doctors, and pharmacists). It seems that patients expect the truth, and it is because health care workers such as nurses and doctors usually comply with this demand, that the profession garners the general public’s respect and admiration.

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has thrust many health care professionals into a role that is different from that taken in the doctor-patient dyad. Many, by the nature of their profession, are called upon to provide “expert” commentary on news outlets and social media. They are asked to educate, inform, and sometimes convince a trusting public with their opinions on widely different issues such as triage policies for patients needing ventilators, best medical treatments, population-based testing for signs of SARS-CoV-2, and potentially coercive public health interventions such as quarantine or social distancing.

The potential dilemma is obvious. Cognizant of having the public’s trust, yet soulfully aware they may not possess the communication skills or critical expertise necessary for a truly informed opinion, “medical experts” on the public stage must negotiate a minefield. Frequently, there is a lack of evidence to justify their positions convincingly. Furthermore, there is a wealth of misinformation, contradiction, and uncertainty circulating in scientific as well as mainstream and social media. Scientific backgrounds are diverse, and not everyone can be everything: a competent patient care provider, a well-published intensivist, a knowledgeable public health official, credible virologist, and judicious medical ethicist. 

Thrust onto the stage of public deliberations, colleagues who, whether by choice or obligation must comment on such diverse issues have a responsibility to tell the truth. Of course, relevant factual information includes evidence-based arguments as well as judgments based on an assessment of likelihoods and societal values. Ideally, there should also be discussions about guidelines and peer-reviewed evidence complemented by remarks about critical thinking and considerations about the ways and means of medical science3.

But many truths are ever-changing. Therein lies the challenge in the pursuit of truth itself. Each time we learn more about COVID-19, we may need to refute or revise what was considered truth in the earlier days of the pandemic. Such is the nature of the scientific endeavor. “Truth is made,” wrote 20th-century philosopher and psychologist, William James, “just as health, wealth, and strength are made, in the course of experience.”4

References

  1. Swaminath G. Indian J Psychiatry. 2008 Apr-Jun; 50(2): 83–84.
  2. https://news.gallup.com/poll/274673/nurses-continue-rate-highest-honesty-ethics.aspx
  3. www.ama-assn.org/delivering-care/ethics/ethical-physician-conduct-media.
  4. William James, Pragmatism’s conception of truth. In Pragmatism: a new name for some old ways of thinking (Longmans, 1907), 197-236.

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Altruism: a foundational trait of a new generation of bronchoscopy educators

(Photo downloaded from stock.adobe.com)

Altruism is often defined as the belief and practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others. Generally, medical ethicists agree that medical doctors cannot be altruistic in their daily encounters with patients because they act within a professional relationship that entails the obligation to relieve suffering and care for their patients. While I personally agree with this position, I do not believe it applies to the new generation of medical educators. 

For example, a few weeks ago I conducted a Train-the-Trainers course in Buenos Aires, Argentina. With participants from Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, and Chile, it was refreshing and promoted enthusiasm. None of the participants were required to be there; all are successful bronchoscopy educators in their thirties and forties with busy careers and family lives. Yet, they volunteered their time and energy to enhance their knowledge about teaching and to experiment with techniques and educational systems well outside their comfort zones.

Some might say that participating in such professional training is not so much a sign of the participant’s altruistic nature as it is simply a means for professional development and continued medical education. But most presumptive bronchoscopy educators are not paid for their teaching services, nor are they thanked by their institutions for taking on such important work. No one mandates that bronchoscopy educators become better teachers. In fact, in most countries, much of our medical education consists in a “see one-do one-teach one” mode of on-the-job training without ever teaching teachers how to teach. After all, teaching others has been a natural obligation of medical professionals since the Hippocratic Oath. 

For a “caring profession,” however, “the see one-do one-teach one” educational model is not particularly caring. Other uncaring behaviors practiced in the name of education include learning to perform procedures by using live animals, glorifying  the physical and emotional abuse associated with long work hours and sleepless nights on-call, overt sexism in the workplace, and the predomination of patriarchal dominance practiced for centuries.

The educational model emphasized in our Train-the-Trainer programs, on the other-hand, promotes team-building, self-reflection and repeated opportunities for positive feedback and reinforcement. Learning to optimize situational “teaching opportunities” separates education from clinical service. Targeted practice using simulation scenarios spares patients from the victimization that results from doctors climbing the learning curve one patient at a time.

For a new generation of educators such as those who came to our program in Argentina, embarking on such a novel voyage of exploration is altruistic because the benefits of helping others come at a cost to oneself. Well-engrained institutional biases and personal resistances must be overcome. New techniques must be learned and eventually mastered before teachers become comfortable incorporating changes into their practices. This journey also requires a questioning of the self, and provides an opportunity for personal-growth and self-actualization that goes beyond what is taught or experienced as part of a medical practice. Ultimately, this prompts an irreversible shift in philosophy by which educators take ownership of the new methodologies and forge them into a new paradigm; a paradigm whereby patients do not suffer the burden of physician-related training.