Topic: Professions & Institutions

Medical Ethics and "Dr. Jerk"

Maybe the late, great comic Henny Youngman based this joke on a real doctor.

A doctor tells a patient that he only has 6 months to live.

“I want a second opinion,” the patient demands.

“Ok,” says the doctor. “You’re ugly, too.”

A New Hampshire doctor named Terry Bennett has allegedly emulated the bedside manner of the doctor in Youngman’s gag by insulting several patients, including telling a white woman she was so obese that only black men would find her attractive, and telling another female patient recovering from brain surgery that she might as well buy a gun and shoot herself. Maybe he’s been watching too much “House.” But a judge ordered the State Board of Medicine to halt disciplinary proceedings against Bennett, holding that Bennett had a right to express himself, however undiplomatically.

“It is nonetheless important,” said Judge Edward Fitzgerald, “to ensure that physicians and patients are free to discuss matters relating to health without fear of government reprisal, even if such discussions may sometimes be harsh, rude or offensive to the listener.”

Maybe so. But this is an ethical issue, not a free speech controversy. The American Medical Association’s Medical Ethics Code declares that “The patient has the right to courtesy, respect, dignity, responsiveness, and timely attention to his or her needs.” I’d say the Doctor Bennett’s comments about the romantic prospects of his obese patient falls a little short in the courtesy, respect and dignity department,” wouldn’t you? And what ever happened to that “do no harm” concept? Does advising a patient to shoot himself meet that standard?

Perhaps because it’s a discipline that depends on words more than actions, the legal profession has no problem disciplining lawyers who are uncivil to those involved in the legal process. Medicine apparently takes a more utilitarian approach: if the doctor’s a sufficiently talented healer, his sharp tongue is just an annoyance, not a cause for punishment. That’s justifiable, but there are limits, and Bennett’s reported comments come awfully close to exceeding them. Patients are often especially vulnerable, and there is a point where indiscriminate bluntness becomes gratuitous cruelty. In real life, in contrast to Henny Youngman jokes, cruelty from doctors isn’t funny.

It’s not ethical, either.

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