Wesley Smith is covering Texas’ legislature’s debate over our Advance Directive Act. Yesterday, he accused the 24 Bishops of Texas of practicing “Futile Care Theory,” which he defines as the decision to limit care by anyone other than a family member or patient. (In other words, here, he says that Terri Schiavo was not a “Futile Care Theory” case.)
Patient autonomy is not the first principle of medicine – that should be non maleficence guiding beneficence over-rides autonomy. “Heal when possible, but first, do no harm.”
If you want to get to basics, the right to life means the right not to be killed, not the right to some one else’s actions to maintain your life to the standard that you want and as long as you want. The doctor also has the right to life and the right to liberty.
Those rights intersect in medicine with/by a fiduciary duty of the doctor to place the patient’s interests above his own and society has agreed that medicine is a good that we will provide for our community.
These interactions have to be guided by a respect for life and health and the medical knowledge and skills of the doctor. The medical knowledge and skills are the element that is measurable, licensed and verifiable by observers outside the patient-physician relationship. The practice of applying medical knowledge and skills requires medical judgment. Acquiring medical judgment – even if it’s just the ability to understand statistics and not a growth of our actual wisdom – is how we learn to do surgery and chemotherapy when it’s obvious that there’s at least a short term harm.
I certainly don’t practice medicine at what Wesley Smith has called “at the macro level.” The closest I come to “macro level” thinking is that extra ankle xray to rule out fracture and ward off lawsuits. And I don’t dare touch a pregnant woman after 20 weeks without all kinds of informed consent forms that ensures we understand that I’m taking care of the cold or sprained ankle (no xray here, without the Obstetrician’s permission), because I’m not insured for OB care.
Nevertheless, money is a factor – society has a duty to the entire community, but the doctor’s fiduciary duty has been to the patient in front of him. We’ve pretty much held that line over the last 20 years despite the push to make us “gatekeepers” and “managers.” (read that, “bean counters.” However, a doctor can’t afford to financially bankrupt himself to devote care to one patient or to provide free or deeply discounted treatment for so many other patients that he can’t provide for his family. (and pay his staff, taxes, rent, etc.)
Every day, our ability to offer increasing levels of technology and pharmaceutical interventions that can serve to keep a body alive longer and as more cells and organ systems fail. It was reported this week that new techniques of resuscitation after cardiac arrest that may benefit – and may harm – thousands of patients.
Each new ability to keep patients alive when they would have died “naturally” puts more stress on the medical judgment element. And puts the doctor in the position of increased likelyhood that he will have to determine the benefit to his patient for more and more invasive treatment. A side effect is that some patients and families may demand that he act against his judgment.
Carried to the extreme, the doctor could become the slave of any family – unable to withdraw from the care of a patient for months or years, forced to change IV’s and IV settings, to maintain and adjust the ventilator and dialysis settings, or even to maintain the heart-lung assistance device that slows cell death, even after the heart has died.
When so many doctors agree that the demands to use medical technology on a patient is inappropriate, that’s not “Futile care theory,” no matter how finely some define it. That’s the practice of medicine. For the Bishops to back the doctors in the practice of medicine is not “futile care theory,” either.
Where are the doctors stepping up to cast doubt on specific decisions and doctors in the cases that have become so celebrated in Texas? We hear rumors, but I don’t see action.
Last year, a good man, a skilled and compassionate doctor, ended up treating Andrea Clark’s family while doing his best to treat the patient, herself, but his actions were definitely futile, proved to be of no medical benefit. By treating the family’s concerns, he enabled them to agree to stop increasing Mrs. Clarke’s level of intervention. He showed wisdom in addition to knowledge, skills and judgment. However, my medical skills and judgment wouldn’t have allowed me to go so far as to drain the gallbladder as he did.