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The Value Of “The Oath”

By Steve Simmons, M.D.

When I graduated from the University of Tennessee’s Medical School sixteen years ago, my last act as a student was to take the Oath of Hippocrates with my classmates and 98% of the other medical students graduating in the United States that year.  This oath still resonates within me today and connects me to all physicians reaching back over 2,500 years to the time of Hippocrates.

Implicit in an oath is the understanding that the profession chosen will require more sacrifice than the average vocation, that the occupation’s rewards should be more than a paycheck, and that a paycheck would impart less value than the enrichment gained from nobly serving others.  The high standard which society holds physicians to is still accurately described by the Hippocratic Oath. Regardless of what changes seep into our profession from outside influences, doctors will always be held to the ideals written in the Hippocratic Oath.

When I was a young medical student, the hope that becoming a physician would bring value and meaning to my life was more rewarding than thoughts of job security or financial stability.  This helped propel me and my classmates through many long nights of study.  One sentiment oft-heard in my medical school, and I suspect many medical schools today, was that no one would put up with ‘this’ just for money–usually stated prior to a re-doubling of the effort to get past a particularly challenging task.  Painful physical effort often was required, such as waking at 3AM to make hospital rounds,  or spending 24-hour long shifts stealing naps and bathroom breaks, sometimes even working over 100 hours a week during demanding rotations.  Steven Miles, a physician bioethicist, wrote, “At some level, physicians recognize that a personal revelation of moral commitments is necessary to the practice of medicine.”

I would proffer that few students would endure the sacrifices necessary to graduate without understanding this point.

In Paul Starr’s 1982 book, The Social Transformation of American Medicine, he stated that in the future the goal of the health industry would not be better health, but rather the rate of return on investments. This unfortunately has come to pass.  Arguably, medicine now is controlled by CEOs and other executives in the health industry — individuals who are not expected to take an oath.  Physicians, remaining loyal to the Oath, are an unwitting weak and junior partner in today’s health care industry.  Worse, doctors are now employees, often seen as interchangeable parts with one doctor considered no different than another. Third party providers in the health care industry fail to place any value on the personal interactions between doctor and patient.  It may be better that the CEOs of health insurance companies are not required to take an oath, since many are on record, admitting loyalty to the share-holder alone with profits their first consideration.

Before the Great Depression, only 24% of the U.S. medical school graduates were given the Oath at graduation.  Does this suggest they were less ethical? I don’t think so.  I believe the increased use of the Oath demonstrates a growing awareness on the part of our educators that business has taken a controlling interest in the practice of medicine and that their graduates should be reminded that society still expects them to deliver on the noble promises of the past.  Hippocrates’ Oath helped pry medicine away from superstition and the controlling interests of Greece’s priesthood in the fifth century B.C. Hippocrates plotted a course towards science using inductive reasoning while his Oath anchored his fledgling art on moral truths unassailable even today.  I suspect he would see little difference between those profiting within the priesthood of his day and those monopolizing healthcare today.   He would find familiarity in those putting forth their difficult-to-decode rules of reimbursement, recognizing these rules as intentionally confusing, pejorative, and detrimental to patients and physicians alike while profiting those few in control. 

How would Hippocrates advise today’s students and physicians when shown how monetary realities have finally subsumed us all?  He might remind us that money was not our motivation in pursuing this career and show us how a return to the reverence for our art, embodied by the Oath, could become a modern conveyance to the ideals of the past.  By regaining our reverence for what motivated and guided us through medical school and residency we should find ample courage to do whatever is necessary.  Much is needed to wrest control of today’s broken healthcare system from those making huge profits…. and an oath can remind us why it is important. 

Until next time, I remain yours in primary care,

Steve Simmons, MD


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Richmond, VA – In an effort to simplify inpatient medical billing, one area hospitalist group has determined that “altered mental status” (ICD-9 780.97) is the most efficient code for use in any patient work up.

“When you enter a hospital, you’re bound to have some kind of mental status change,” said Dr. Fishbinder, co-partner of Area Hospitalists, PLLC. “Whether it’s confusion about where your room is located in relationship to the visitor’s parking structure, frustration with being woken up every hour or two to check your vital signs, or just plain old fatigue from being sick, you are not thinking as clearly as before you were admitted. And that’s all the justification we need to order anything from drug and toxin screens, to blood cultures, brain MRIs, tagged red blood cell nuclear scans, or cardiac Holter monitoring. There really is no limit to what we can pursue with our tests.”

Common causes of mental status changes in the elderly include medicine-induced cognitive side effects, disorientation due to disruption in daily routines, age-related memory impairment, and urinary tract infections.

“The urinalysis is not a very exciting medical test,” stated Dr. Fishbinder. “It doesn’t matter that it’s cheap, fast, and most likely to provide an explanation for strange behavior in hospitalized patients. It’s really not as elegant as the testing involved in a chronic anemia or metabolic encephalopathy work up. I keep it in my back pocket in case all other tests are negative, including brain MRIs and PET scans.”

Nursing staff at Richmond Medical Hospital report that efforts to inform hospitalists about foul smelling urine have generally fallen on deaf ears. “I have tried to tell the hospitalists about cloudy or bloody urine that I see in patients who are undergoing extensive work ups for mental status changes,” reports nurse Sandy Anderson. “But they insist that ‘all urine smells bad’ and it’s really more of a red herring.”

Another nurse reports that delay in diagnosing urinary tract infections (while patients are scheduled for brain MRIs, nuclear scans, and biopsies) can lead to worsening symptoms which accelerate and expand testing. “Some of my patients are transferred to the ICU during the altered mental status work up,” states nurse Anita Misra. “The doctors seem to be very excited about the additional technology available to them in the intensive care setting. Between the central line placement, arterial blood gasses, and vast array of IV fluid and medication options, urosepsis is really an excellent entré into a whole new level of care.”

“As far as medicine-induced mental status changes are concerned,” added Dr. Fishbinder, “We’ve never seen a single case in the past 10 years. Today’s patients are incredibly resilient and can tolerate mixes of opioids, anti-depressants, anti-histamines, and benzodiazepines without any difficulty. We know this because most patients have been prescribed these cocktails and have been taking them for years.”

Patient family members have expressed gratitude for Dr. Fishbinder’s diagnostic process, and report that they are very pleased that he is doing everything in his power to “get to the bottom” of why their loved one isn’t as sharp as they used to be.

“I thought my mom was acting strange ever since she started taking stronger pain medicine for her arthritis,” says Nelly Hurtong, the daughter of one of Dr. Fishbinder’s inpatients. “But now I see that there are deeper reasons for her ‘altered mental status’ thanks to the brain MRI that showed some mild generalized atrophy.”

Hospital administrators praise Dr. Fishbinder as one of their top physicians. “He will do whatever it takes to figure out the true cause of patients’ cognitive impairments.” Says CEO, Daniel Griffiths. “And not only is that good medicine, it is great for our Press Ganey scores and our bottom line.”

As for the nursing staff, Griffiths offered a less glowing review. “It’s unfortunate that our nurses seem preoccupied with urine testing and medication reconciliation. I think it might be time for us to mandate further training to help them appreciate more of the medical nuances inherent in quality patient care.”

Dr. Fishbinder is in the process of creating a half-day seminar on ‘altered mental status in the inpatient setting,’ offering CME credits to physicians who enroll. Richmond Medical Hospital intends to sponsor Dr. Fishbinder’s course, and franchise it to other hospitals in the state, and ultimately nationally.

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