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Some Doctors' Oaths Hypocritical, Study Says

By Jesse Stanchak, CQ Staff

December 3, 2007 -- Many doctors have trouble living up to their own professional standards, according to a new study published Monday in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

The study, performed by David Blumenthal and Eric Campbell of Massachusetts General Hospital, surveyed 1,600 doctors across a range of specialties and found widespread agreement among doctors on a range of ethical standards, but considerable disparities in how well they live up to those ideals.

According to the study:

  • If a colleague was "significantly impaired," by drugs or alcohol or some other problem, 96 percent of doctors felt they should always report the problem, but 45 percent had let it slide at least once.
  • Ninety-three percent of doctors felt all serious medical errors should be reported, but 46 percent said they'd failed to report such an error.
  • A quarter of doctors would refer a patient to a facility that presented a clear conflict of interest for the doctor, even though 96 percent of physicians said their duty to their patients outweighed financial concerns.
  • While 93 percent of doctors felt they should treat anyone regardless of ability to pay, only 69 percent are currently taking patients who cannot pay for their treatment.
  • Only 25 percent of doctors have looked for disparities in care based on patient gender or race in the last three years, even though 98 percent of doctors agreed they should be working to minimize these inequalities.

"There is a measurable disconnect between what physicians say they think is the right thing to do and what they actually do," Campbell said in a news release. "This raises serious questions about the ability of the medical profession to regulate itself."

At a forum Monday at the National Press Club to discuss the study's findings, James Thompson, CEO of the Federation of State Medical Boards, argued that doctors were penned in by the American the health care system, fighting giant bureaucracies while fearing legal action if they make a mistake.

"We need to replace this system of punitive measures with non-punitive remediation," said Thompson, arguing that fear of punishment, for themselves or other doctors, makes it difficult for doctors to act on problems.

Sara Rosenbaum, head of the Health Policy Department at George Washington University, agreed that the problem was best addressed by state medical boards and other private regulatory groups, not with law suits and legislation.

"The social ideal is to avoid heavy-handed use of the law," said Rosenbaum, "It's too slow. By the time the money or the changes are ready to effect the people who made a complaint, its too late for the individual." She added that doctors and hospitals already have difficulty meeting their regulatory burden, limiting the effectiveness of new rules.

Rep. Michael C. Burgess, R-Texas, a physician, was in the audience but did not speak on the panel. He has long taken an interest in limiting medical liability suits. While he found himself agreeing with Rosenbaum that the medical industry would have to work harder to regulate itself to correct the issues brought up by the study, Burgess said he also knows how hard it can be effect change at a medical practice.

"The trouble is that it's almost impossible to bounce a physician out of a practice, no matter what they've done, even if you think you've got just an iron clad case against them," said Burgess. "Of course no one wants a doctor that's been drinking in an operating room, but what about the guy with the anger management problem? It's trickier."

Burgess cited a particularly extreme example. "I knew a doctor, years ago, who'd killed his wife, strangled her in fact. And everyone who worked with him knew it, absolutely. But it took 10 years for a case to be built against him and for him to be convicted and until then there was nothing anyone could do, because you're innocent until proven guilty."

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