6. Prozac Monologues: April 2019

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Doctors as Priests, Providers and Protectors - Part 4

In Priests, Providers, and Protectors: The Three Faces of  the PhysicianRon Pies proposes a third way to view physicians, not exalting them to the grandiose position of Priest nor demoting them to mere Provider. In the role I call the Protector, the physician's chief obligation is that of  the safeguarding of the patient's physical, emotional, and spiritual well being.

This is a role that acknowledges the patient's autonomy, while recognizing the physician's expertise and the ethical imperative to use that expertise to express foundational principles of the medical field: beneficence, nonmaleficense, and justice. Do good, don't do harm, and I'm not sure what he means by justice, though I have some ideas. The examples below are mine, not his.

Protector falls on the ear a tad pretentious. Alas, us literary types on occasion choose alliteration over precision. A trip to the thesaurus gave me the word Defender. Either word reminds us that patients need physicians. We need their expertise and their access to the tools of modern medicine, because we don't know what they know, and we cannot write our own prescriptions nor do our own surgeries.

We also need their attention, dedication, and good will. Their knowledge and access give them power over. There is no getting around that. So we need them to exercise that power with beneficence and nonmaleficence. This is a fiduciary responsibility, a trust relationship. In our ever more contractual culture, the notion of an obligation to be trustworthy is a throwback, intentionally so on Pies' part.

Physicians' fiduciary responsibility puts constraints on their power over. It limits the provider role. There are things that physicians are ethically constrained from providing, for example, addictive substances to addicts and, some say, the means to those who want to die.

Fiduciary responsibility also acknowledges the limits of patient autonomy. The role of physician as protector is to step in and take over when the patient's autonomy has been compromised by his/her condition. The middle of a coronary or a mental health crisis is not a good time for the patient to research alternatives or weigh costs and benefits. The role of the physician here, as Pies sees it, is to restore the patient's autonomy.

What about justice, which Pies calls one of the foundational principles of the medical field? Those in power want to be the arbiters of what justice is, though they are poorly positioned to recognize their own violations of it. When medicine for profit came to be (really, profit, not universal health care, is the novel concept), the power of modern day physicians slipped. In this brave new world of health care as an industry, physicians have another role, that of employee, preferably non-unionized, from the industry's perspective.

As the health care industry devolves into a hostage situation, with the mounting deaths of people with type 1 diabetes as just one indicator, many physicians have taken up the cause of single payer health care, particularly psychiatrists whose patients have least access to employment and health insurance, and are least able to advocate for themselves politically.

Physicians find themselves having to weigh in when a law would controvert professional ethics and permit them to refuse care to certain groups for "religious reasons." Another incursion of government into medicine contradicts physicians' ethics by restricting the medical information they can give to patients. These are but two examples where physicians have stepped up in the political arena to protect patients' physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.

Pies, the ethicist calls his colleagues to their calling with its ancient responsibilities. He represents a movement that I think of as "reweaving the web," a counterrevolution against utilitarianism. Maybe profit isn't the bottom line, after all. Maybe humanity is. Best wishes to my friend who takes up this cause.

Previous posts in this series:

Doctors as Providers
Doctors as Priests
Doctors as Priests - The Look

let docs speak meme from AMA site

Friday, April 5, 2019

Doctors as Priests -- The Look

Several years ago I took Prozac for what was then thought to be Major Depression.  The hypomanic episode it precipitated gave me a book.  But before that, it gave me the runs.  Since my first doctor thought the runs would go away on their own, but I was about to leave for Costa Rica and wanted them to go away faster, I sought a second opinion.  The new patient form asked for my full history, and I told the truth about my depression, as well as the runs.

What follows is an excerpt from Prozac Monologues, the book to be published next year.  It describes that appointment.  I offer it as an example of a doctor functioning as priest.  [See last week's commentary on Ron Pies' article, Priests, Providers, and Protectors: The Three Faces of the Physician.]  Not the Father kind of priest, but the more ancient healer/witch/shaman kind.  It's tricky to handle the power of the priesthood.  But I want doctors to manage that power responsibly, not give it up on account of its ambiguity.  It is the power of relationship.  We need doctors to use every power at their disposal to heal.  Priesthood is one of those powers.

The Look

...When the doctor looked at the piece of paper with all those words circled on it, she didn't smile at my weak attempt at humor.  Oh well.  What she was most concerned about for my trip to Costa Rica was how I would manage my depression as the Prozac was leaving my system -- which I could tell it was, because the dark suffocating cloud was coming back.