Practically everyone who lives in America has heard about the Baltimore riots, precipitated by the death of a man while in police custody. Their scope was unprecedented; their implications, far reaching. I, like many Americans, stayed glued to the news to keep abreast of the latest updates for a variety of reasons, one of which was that I live and work nearby, and personal safety was a major concern. At the peak of the violence, when people were leaving the city in droves, I kept in close contact with my brother, a physician who works in a hospital at the epicenter of the chaos. Fortunately, he got out safely, as did most people. Yet many, including citizens and police officers, were injured, some seriously so.
No matter where you stand regarding the events surrounding the riots, the fact remains that we as physicians are not infrequently called upon to care for patients who have victimized or been victimized by others. We care for those who are slowly destroying themselves and endangering others with their abuse of drugs and alcohol, yet refuse any help we offer for their substance abuse. Some hospitalists work in hospitals with booming prison wards, and thus frequently care for murderers, thieves, child abusers, and others whom we may secretly fear, yet openly pledge to protect, respect, and care for. While I could not find a good scholarly article addressing how we as physicians do versus how we should handle these situations, I believe many of us have struggled with the personal emotions and ethical dilemmas raised by some of these cases.
How much can we and should we get involved? How do we mask our personal opinions of patients who have committed egregious acts and provide not only the best care possible, but do so while treating them with the respect and dignity that we allow for other patients? And if we go the extra mile to provide emotional support and encouragement, will we really have any positive impact on them, or will they just shut us out? Where do we draw the line between just being health care providers and being compassionate, nonjudgmental clinicians who can really impact their lives?
I don’t think there is an easy answer to any of these questions, and each patient is different. But I believe that many people still look up to their health care providers, and there will be those times when we can be more than their doctor; we can be their (much-needed) friend. Meanwhile, we need to guard against the natural human inclination to act as judge and jury toward those who have committed acts we personally find reprehensible. Every patient deserves our very best medical care, even when we cannot find it within ourselves to give this service with a smile.
Dr. Hester is a hospitalist at Baltimore-Washington Medical Center in Glen Burnie, Md. She is the creator of the Patient Whiz, a patient-engagement app for iOS. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org .