In America, the Title of “Doctor” No Longer Deserves Our Respect

I didn’t grow up in America. I grew up in Jamaica and spent my early adult life in Haiti and Canada. So, I don’t know what doctors were like in this country back then. But I imagine American doctors were much like the doctors in other countries – revered and dignified figures dedicated to healing the sick. I don’t recall them as being particularly wealthy. They were well off, no doubt about it. They lived in nice homes and drove nice cars, probably belonged to a country club… that kind of thing. But they didn’t seem obsessed with making money. They enjoyed something more gratifying: respect. To be a doctor was to be someone of value, someone to be held in high esteem. And, as I remember, they behaved accordingly, with dignity, decorum and

This image came to mind as I watched Michael Moore’s documentary “Sicko” on Showtime yesterday afternoon. Moore was interviewing an English doctor of this generation, a young man employed by the United Kingdom’s government -run health care program. The young doctor seemed content with his lot. He owned a nice car, an Audi. He had a nice home in London. He and his wife vacationed in exotic places.  You’ve probably seen “Sicko,” and you may remember that young doctor. He smiled a lot, and obviously worked hard but felt it was worth it. When Moore asked him if he ever had to turn away a patient who could not afford to pay for treatment, he said quite simply that he would not work for a system like that.

Later yesterday, I learned that some delegates had booed President Obama during his speech at the American Medical Association’s annual meeting. These were doctors booing their country’s President. Could you imagine Doctor Calder in Malvern booing Queen Elizabeth? Or any other speaker? Unthinkable.

These doctors are angry with the President because he does not support a cap on malpractice judgments. And I have to admit that some malpractice awards have been outrageous. On the other hand, atrocities committed by negligent and incompetent medical practitioners also boggle the mind. I cannot imagine Dr. McConnell or Dr. MacFarlane cutting off the wrong leg, for example, or leaving their forceps inside a patient. Why should that kind of slackness be protected?

The president is willing to explore alternatives to taking doctors to court. He supports a program in which hospitals and doctors are encouraged to admit mistakes, correct them and offer compensation. But that’s not good enough for the AMA delegates. They want special dispensation for their tragic errors.

Of course, the AMA is dissatisfied with the President for another reason: He is proposing a government-run health insurance program that would compete with private companies. And that’s anathema to many of today’s doctors. To understand why, you have to look at the causes of America’s runaway health care costs. Studies show doctors are responsible for much of the wasteful spending in the nation’s $2.5 trillion health care system. As much as 30 cents of each health care dollar is going for unnecessary tests and procedures. In other words, many of today’s doctors are in the business of making money, not healing patients. A publicly run system would likely mean stricter regulation and less wiggle room for bringing in those extra bucks. And making them even more opposed to competition from a “public option,” some doctors own shares in health insurance companies.

Also, in “Sicko,” I learned that a new class of “doctor” has emerged – the medical directors at the insurance companies. Their job is to save their employers’ money by denying clients’ requests for treatment. How can they square that with their consciences?  Didn’t they take an oath to “do no harm”?

With such vultures calling themselves “doctors,” are you surprised that the AMA opposes a health care system that would offer the public an alternative to insurance companies?

I can only hope that President Obama will not weaken in his resolve to include a “public option” in any new health care legislation.

The effort to protect the insurance industry at all costs is making it unlikely that Congress will produce real health care reform. Senators – Democrats as well as Republicans – are going through contortions to protect the insurance industry, which has contributed millions to their election campaigns. You can be sure that any bill they produce will primarily benefit the health insurance industry.

The President should veto any such aberration that reaches his desk. And the public should take to the streets (as they are doing in Iran today) to make our elected representatives know that they would override his veto at their peril.