The Moral Crisis of America’s Doctors

Dean’s essay caught my eye, too, because I spent much of the previous few years reporting on moral injury, interviewing workers in menial occupations whose jobs were ethically compromising. I spoke to prison guards who patrolled the wards of violent penitentiaries, undocumented immigrants who toiled on the “kill floors” of industrial slaughterhouses and roustabouts who worked on offshore rigs in the fossil-fuel industry. Many of these workers were hesitant to talk or be identified, knowing how easily they could be replaced by someone else. Compared with them, physicians were privileged, earning six-figure salaries and doing prestigious jobs that spared them from the drudgery endured by so many other members of the labor force, including nurses and custodial workers in the health care industry. But in recent years, despite the esteem associated with their profession, many physicians have found themselves subjected to practices more commonly associated with manual laborers in auto plants and Amazon warehouses, like having their productivity tracked on an hourly basis and being pressured by management to work faster.

Because doctors are highly skilled professionals who are not so easy to replace, I assumed that they would not be as reluctant to discuss the distressing conditions at their jobs as the low-wage workers I’d interviewed. But the physicians I contacted were afraid to talk openly. “I have since reconsidered this and do not feel this is something I can do right now,” one doctor wrote to me. Another texted, “Will need to be anon.” Some sources I tried to reach had signed nondisclosure agreements that prohibited them from speaking to the media without permission. Others worried they could be disciplined or fired if they angered their employers, a concern that seems particularly well founded in the growing swath of the health care system that has been taken over by private-equity firms. In March 2020, an emergency-room doctor named Ming Lin was removed from the rotation at his hospital after airing concerns about its Covid-19 safety protocols. Lin worked at St. Joseph Medical Center, in Bellingham, Wash. — but his actual employer was TeamHealth, a company owned by the Blackstone Group.

E.R. doctors have found themselves at the forefront of these trends as more and more hospitals have outsourced the staffing in emergency departments in order to cut costs. A 2013 study by Robert McNamara, the chairman of the emergency-medicine department at Temple University in Philadelphia, found that 62 percent of emergency physicians in the United States could be fired without due process. Nearly 20 percent of the 389 E.R. doctors surveyed said they had been threatened for raising quality-of-care concerns, and pressured to make decisions based on financial considerations that could be detrimental to the people in their care, like being pushed to discharge Medicare and Medicaid patients or being encouraged to order more testing than necessary. In another study, more than 70 percent of emergency physicians agreed that the corporatization of their field has had a negative or strongly negative impact on the quality of care and on their own job satisfaction.

There are, of course, plenty of doctors who like what they do and feel no need to speak out. Clinicians in high-paying specialties like orthopedics and plastic surgery “are doing just fine, thank you,” one physician I know joked. But more and more doctors are coming to believe that the pandemic merely worsened the strain on a health care system that was already failing because it prioritizes profits over patient care. They are noticing how the emphasis on the bottom line routinely puts them in moral binds, and young doctors in particular are contemplating how to resist. Some are mulling whether the sacrifices — and compromises — are even worth it. “I think a lot of doctors are feeling like something is troubling them, something deep in their core that they committed themselves to,” Dean says. She notes that the term moral injury was originally coined by the psychiatrist Jonathan Shay to describe the wound that forms when a person’s sense of what is right is betrayed by leaders in high-stakes situations. “Not only are clinicians feeling betrayed by their leadership,” she says, “but when they allow these barriers to get in the way, they are part of the betrayal. They’re the instruments of betrayal.”

Not long ago, I spoke to an emergency physician, whom I’ll call A., about her experience. (She did not want her name used, explaining that she knew several doctors who had been fired for voicing concerns about unsatisfactory working conditions or patient-safety issues.) A soft-spoken woman with a gentle manner, A. referred to the emergency room as a “sacred space,” a place she loved working because of the profound impact she could have on patients’ lives, even those who weren’t going to pull through. During her training, a patient with a terminal condition somberly informed her that his daughter couldn’t make it to the hospital to be with him in his final hours. A. promised the patient that he wouldn’t die alone and then held his hand until he passed away. Interactions like that one would not be possible today, she told me, because of the new emphasis on speed, efficiency and relative value units (R.V.U.), a metric used to measure physician reimbursement that some feel rewards doctors for doing tests and procedures and discourages them from spending too much time on less remunerative functions, like listening and talking to patients. “It’s all about R.V.U.s and going faster,” she said of the ethos that permeated the practice where she’d been working. “Your door-to-doctor time, your room-to-doctor time, your time from initial evaluation to discharge.”

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