Each profession has its own core set of knowledge, skills, and values. For physicians, the core set of knowledge is anatomy, pathophysiology, and pharmacology. Skills include taking a history, the physical exam, and surgical procedures. The core values traditionally have been compassion and altruism. For modern medical practice, I urge adding cooperation as a core value. Medical school and the apprenticeship of residency are designed to teach, role model, foster, develop, and groom these core competencies.
Getting into medical school is highly competitive. Medical training uses methods that are very different than those used to train elite Olympic and professional athletes. Some competitiveness persists in medical school, but in general the faculty emphasizes cooperation rather than competition. The metric is not whether one student or resident is better than another. Gold and silver medals are not awarded. It is about whether each physician-to-be has passed the milestones needed to practice medicine.
The medical profession has a key fiduciary value that puts the patient’s well-being first. The provision of modern medicine requires the coordination of multiple specialties. Anything that impedes their cooperation is a potential threat to optimal health care for our patients. As a hospitalist, I often describe my function as patching together a quilt of different subspecialty knowledge and skills in order to cover the entire health care needs of my patient. I don’t have the luxury of choosing only Republican or Democratic cardiologists. I have worked with colleagues who are Muslim, Jewish, and young earth creationists. Political and religious affiliations are not important. Competence, compassion, sound medical science, critical thinking, and communication skills are crucial.
But American health care is threatened by the continued polarization of our government and our society. For years both Cleveland Clinic and Dana Farber have held annual fundraising events at Mar-a-Lago. In February 2017, because of that location’s association with President Trump, some people associated with the organizations advocated boycotting those important fund-raisers. These past few months, it seems every action and every purchase has become a political statement. One restaurant mentioned immigrants on its receipt. The action went viral and caused other people to advocate boycotting the restaurant or not tipping the wait staff ( “The new political battleground: Your restaurant receipt,” The Washington Post, by Maura Judkis, Feb. 14, 2017).
Secondary boycotts are an ethical quandary. In labor disputes, organized unions can go on strike. In the 1970s, Japanese cars were not welcome in the employee parking lot of a Ford assembly plant. People do vote with their pocketbook. But in labor disputes, there are legal restrictions on secondary boycotts against other companies. People do need to get along with their neighbors and so do businesses. Politics is the art of encouraging cooperation on one project amongst people who disagree about the goals of many other proposed projects. The Preamble to the United States Constitution enumerates the benefits of cooperation.
In any large-scale human endeavor, conflicts arise that may limit cooperation. Accommodating conscientious objection is the safety valve that permits cooperation when dealing with contested government endeavors such as war, abortion, and physician-assisted suicide. It is meant as a last ditch effort to maintain cohesion of both societal and individual moral integrity. But if every proposed action is met with votes divided along party lines, conscientious objection loses its moral high ground.
Judge Neil Gorsuch, the nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, has a record of supporting religious freedom in Yellowbear v. Lambert (10th Cir. 2014). He would likely support conscientious objection in relation to assisted dying by physicians, contrary to the arguments made recently by bioethicists Julian Savulescu and Udo Schuklenk. In related news, the liberty of physicians to address gun safety was affirmed when a Florida appeals court upheld the overturning of the state’s Privacy of Firearm Owners Act.
Summing up a tumultuous month of medical ethics, I leave you with the words of Voltaire: “Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it.”
Dr. Powell is a pediatric hospitalist and clinical ethics consultant living in St. Louis. Email him at email@example.com .