Friday, September 17, 2021

Should hospitals and doctors make value judgements about who deserves treatment?

I heard on NPR’s “Here and Now” (Sept 9, 2021) that Jimmy Kimmel, the late night TV host, had expressed anger and frustration with people continuing to refuse vaccination for COVID-19. He noted that many hospitals no longer have available Intensive Care (ICU) beds available, and were going to have to triage who was admitted to them. According to the host, Robin Young, Kimmel said the decision was easy: you have a heart attack, you’re in; you have COVID and didn’t get vaccinated, you’re out. (His monologue is summarized by The Hill, among other sources.) Kimmel is not the only one to express outrage at the unvaccinated -- “shock jock” Howard Stern has responded to those who would cite their freedom to not be vaccinated with “F—k their freedom; I want my freedom to live!”— and is also not the only one called for such “ICU triage”.

Daniel Wikler, a professor of medical ethics from the Harvard School of Public Health was Ms. Young’s guest, and he said that, while he understood the anger that Kimmel and others were expressing, and empathized with it, he did not believe that it was the business of doctors or hospitals to make such decisions. It was the tradition and history of medicine, he said, to treat the illness of the patient if it was treatable, not to decide that someone had done something to themselves to make them undeserving of treatment. As an example, he noted a skier who might ignore all warnings, ski down the back of the hill, and get injured. There are lots of other potential examples, and they are valid.

I agree with Dr. Wikler on both points. First, I understand and empathize with Mr. Kimmel and others who are furious that those who have refused vaccination not only threaten the health of the rest of us but also end up utilizing a huge amount of health resources and services that not only can limit access to these services for others in need, and in any case cost huge amounts in time and effort by health professionals as well as in money. But I also agree that doctors and hospitals have no business refusing to care for these people, and that a core ethical value in medical care has been to provide care, if you are able, to help the illness of the patient, not to judge whether they are worthy of care because of their previous actions. One of the most dramatic and important examples are medical facilities in war zones, which are obligated by the Geneva Convention to treat all injured on the basis of need, not which side they fought on. To treat one’s own soldiers and not injured enemy soldiers who are prisoners is a war crime.

Many of those people who have the heart attacks that Mr. Kimmel thinks should get them into the ICU smoked cigarettes, or ate a very poor diet, or did not exercise, or all of these. While I’m sure that there are some people who are judgmental and smug enough to believe that they should suffer the results of their own life decisions and not receive care, this is not the approach that doctors and hospitals take.

There are certainly many people whose illnesses are at least partly a result of other poor decisions, including use of alcohol – both heavy lifetime use and even one episode which led to the car accident that has them in the emergency room – or other drugs. In addition, while less common than from alcohol, illness and death related to illegal drugs such as opiates and opioids and stimulants is still very common; we have all heard of the “opioid epidemic”. And there are infinite possibilities for blame when you go beyond “sins of commission” – things you did that were bad for you – and enter the realm of “sins of omission” – thing that you didn’t do that are, at least in the view of the one making the judgement, would have been good for you (e.g., diet and exercise).

Back to domestic hospital use, I would like to discuss two examples from my own experience. Suicide attempts are definitely self-inflicted, but the motivation to act is often transient, and many people who attempt suicide and survive do not attempt it again. Guns are very lethal, however, with well over 90% of suicide attempts by gun being “successful”; drugs are less so. My son killed himself with a gun, but if his attempt had been with a less lethal method, I  certainly would have wanted him treated.

On our inpatient services, residents and I have cared for many people who are repeatedly admitted with the effects of their use of alcohol or other drugs. One person I remember well. Regularly admitted for the toxic effects of alcohol overdose, on treatment and release he always pledged to get treatment for his disease, most strongly motivated by caring for his daughter, but never followed through. After many admissions, some residents thought it wasteful to continue to treat him and argued against it. My position was not only was recovery a difficult process, often with many failed attempts, but that our role was to treat his medical condition and refer him for treatment for his alcoholism. We could make the judgement that he was at fault, and each of us might have our own opinion about whether he “deserved” treatment, but that was irrelevant to our obligation to take care of it. It would be a slippery slope indeed. And I would be remiss to not point out the most common reason people are “triaged” to not receive care, at least in the US, is financial: they do not have money or good insurance. That is totally immoral and unacceptable.

There are some differences with those who refused to be vaccinated against COVID or wear masks or distance, but these are variations on a theme. Yes, they put others as well as themselves and their families at risk, but so do those who drink and drive or use other drugs, or who do many other things. It is our job to take care of them to the best of our ability. To do otherwise is to risk great hypocrisy, thinking that those who do the dangerous things we ourselves do are less culpable than those who do dangerous things we do not do and decry. I call it the “Jesse Helms fallacy” after the former powerful North Carolina senator who both opposed treatment for people with HIV/AIDS, who he said were suffering God’s punishment for their homosexuality, and also smoked like a chimney and fought for the tobacco industry. When he had developed heart disease, he sought and received treatment, despite being largely personally responsible for it.

That so many are refusing vaccination and care that there are no beds in ICUs in many states (as a person from Alabama did from heart disease after being unable to get a bed in 43 hospitals in 3 states, and as is occurring across the poorly-vaccinated South) is shameful, discouraging, and incredibly dangerous. These people are misguided, stupid, and many are even evil. But we also hear of those who (because they are dying, to be sure) regret their decisions. We can feel some sense of self-righteousness when we hear about anti-vax personalities who have died. If we are in institutions where there are not enough beds and patients have to be triaged, that triage must be on the basis of their condition and our ability to help them. The social/political fight cannot be waged at the bedside of an individual patient.

As much as we might be tempted to do so.

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Twenty years after 9/11: a health worker perspective

This is a guest post on the 20th anniversary of September 11, 2001, by Seiji Yamada, MD, a family physician at from the University of Hawai'i John A. Burns School of Medicine

All those of us who are old enough recall what we were doing when we heard of the attacks of September 11, 2001. Since I live in Hawaiʻi, I was awakened by a friend living on the East Coast. He called to tell me to turn on my TV. When I did so, I saw the two towers of the World Trade Center on fire. I then watched the towers collapse.

On the following day, the University of Hawaiʻi Department of Family Practice (before the name was changed to Family Medicine) held a debriefing session with all staff, residents, and faculty in attendance. We came to some conclusions that we wrote about in the medical school newsletter:

We are humans before we are healthcare workers; our humanity is still a core component of our effectiveness as healers. Thus, our presence and genuineness, in the form of compassion and, when appropriate, openness about our own feelings, are therapeutic. When we can share some of our feelings about a recent disaster, it encourages a healing partnership by making the relationship less hierarchical. . . .


We must seek productive ways that translate our responses to distant suffering into a medicine more responsive to the suffering before us.  In this way, we can strive to incorporate social justice, equality, and compassion into both the practice of medicine and into the political response to acts of jarring violence.  We suggest that we should feel, think, and act not as members of a particular ethnic group, religion, or nation - but, rather, as humans.[1]

One participant, a Muslim and Arab woman, was silent through most of the session, but at the end, she related that she first wanted to hear what others had to say. She told us that she had grown up with, and constantly lived with anti-Muslim, anti-Arab sentiments being expressed around her – such that she often found it most prudent to hide her ethnicity.

We wondered what the future would hold.  Would this tragedy make Americans ponder why their country is hated by many around the world?  Or would the U.S. hunker down like Israel and embody the national security state, arms pointed in every direction?  The fearful consensus was, as has been borne out, that this trial would only serve to strengthen the impetus to meet force with force.

Indeed, 9/11 was followed by much flag-waving and George W. Bush’s declaration of a “War on Terror.” As the mastermind of the September 11 attacks, Osama Bin Laden (a Saudi), and the training camps of Al-Qaeda were in Afghanistan – the U.S. military began to plan for an assault on Afghanistan.

Richard Horton, the editor of The Lancet, wrote in a commentary published on October 6, 2001, suggesting that “The war against terrorism, announced by President Bush and endorsed by western political leaders in the immediate aftermath of the Sept 11 assault on America, will fail.” He suggested instead that “health, development, and human rights” be the objectives of a public health approach to Afghanistan.[2]

The U.S. started bombing Afghanistan on October 7, 2001.

I attended the American Public Health Association in Atlanta in late October 2001. Against the backdrop of daily bombing runs projected on the megascreen of the CNN Center, I thought that I might find fellow health workers opposed to the war. After all, UN agencies such as the World Food Program and UNICEF had been drawing attention to the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan that pre-dated 9/11. Severe drought and twenty years of war in Afghanistan had led to conditions bordering on widespread famine. Shouldn’t public health workers, who are concerned about the health and well-being of people, oppose the U.S. war on Afghanistan?

I buttonholed Victor Sidel, grand old man of social medicine, and invited him to chat over a coffee. His take on bombing Afghanistan was, “The U.S. has to do something.  It can’t stand by and do nothing.” He criticized what he saw as my pacifist stance.[3]

It has taken nearly 20 years for the U.S. to leave Afghanistan. September 11 also served as one of the pretexts for the Iraq War of 2003-2011. All told, the first ten years of the “War on Terror” took on the order of 1.3 million lives.[4]

Since September 2001, we have endured twenty years of U.S. invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq, and wherever else the U.S. deploys its Special Forces, whether it is Africa or the Philippines. Twenty years of drone attacks, reaching its height under “Hope and Change” Obama, who devoted his Tuesday mornings to choosing the week’s targets for extrajudicial assassination (“Sorry about the wedding party collateral damage”).  Twenty years of torture chambers at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib and Bagram Air Base and those hidden black sites around the world (“Yeah, Gina Haspel, you sure did a bang-up job running that black site in Thailand - we’re going to give you the top job of CIA Director”). Oh, Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, do you think you’re going to let the people know what’s really going on? Well, for your troubles, you’re going to be psychologically tortured and placed in solitary confinement or exiled.

One economic sector saw its stock prices jump upward after 9/11, those of the arms manufacturers. As soon as the generals who oversaw the destruction of Afghanistan and Iraq and Libya retired from the U.S. military, they moved straight onto the boards of the weapons manufacturers. Lloyd Austin went from being commander of CENTCOM to the board of Raytheon. Meanwhile, the other pillar of the U.S. economy was the gambling house of debt financialization. When the casinos (i.e., the investment banks and their insurers) couldn’t cover their own debts and crashed the world economy, the U.S. taxpayers (via Congress) bailed out the banks, and workers were foreclosed on their houses. Subsequently, the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or ‘Obamacare’), touted as expanding the social good of health care to more people, essentially turned it over to the insurance and pharmaceutical industries.

However much the fabric of U.S. society has deteriorated in the twenty years since 9/11, it does not compare with the deliberate kinetic destruction wrought on the health services, access to water and food, infrastructure, and economies of Afghanistan and Iraq. Prior to the Gulf War (1991-1992, waged by George H.W. Bush), Iraq had been a thriving society, a leader in science in medicine in the Arab world. [5] Now, subsequent to the U.S. invasion (2003-2011, started by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney), and the war against ISIS (2013-2017), Iraq is a shambles. And thanks to Donald Trump’s utter incompetence, George W. Bush is now looked upon as a statesman. We are reminded that the U.S. destruction of the Middle East has been going on for much longer than the past twenty years. As Noam Chomsky often says, massive reparations are in order.

As noted by Chris Hedges, as the U.S. leaves, Afghanistan is, like when the U.S. invaded, in the midst of another humanitarian crisis:

Things are already dire. There are some 14 million Afghans, one in three, who lack sufficient food. There are two million Afghan children who are malnourished. There are 3.5 million people in Afghanistan who have been displaced from their homes. The war has wrecked infrastructure. A drought destroyed 40 percent of the nation’s crops last year. The assault on the Afghan economy is already seeing food prices skyrocket. The sanctions and severance of aid will force civil servants to go without salaries and the health service, already chronically short of medicine and equipment, will collapse.[6]

As Hedges points out, the response of the civilized world is to freeze the assets of the Afghan central bank and deny the new government access to loans or grants.

In retrospect, it is obvious how the desire for revenge in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 has led us to where we are now. What if, instead, the pain engendered by 9/11 had encouraged us to recognize the pain of others - those who suffer from hunger, poverty, ill health, and exploitation? What if narrative and images death and destruction had prompted us health workers to demand an end to war?[7]

What if we had sought instead to alleviate social ills and sought to ensure clean water, good nutrition, education, and health? Might we not all be better for it now?

[1] Yamada S, Maskarinec G, Bohnert P, Chen TH.  In the aftermath:  reactions to September 11, 2001.  News from the John A. Burns School of Medicine 2001 Winter;2:1-2.

[2] Horton R. Public health: a neglected counterterrorist measure. Lancet 2001 358:1112-1113.

[3] Yamada S. On The Responsibility of Health Workers to Oppose the War. ZNet. Nov. 2, 2001.

[4] International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. Body count: casualty figures after 10 years of the “War on Terror” Iraq Afghanistan Pakistan. 2015 March: International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.

[5] Yamada S. Health workers and the Afghanistan-Pakistan War. ZNet.  December 14, 2009. Reprinted at Medicine and Social Justice. January 11, 2010.

[6] Hedges C. The Empire does not forgive. ScheerPost. August 30, 2021.

[7] Yamada S, Smith Fawzi MC, Maskarinec GG, Farmer PE.  Casualties:  narrative and images of the war on Iraq.  Int J Health Services, 2006;36(2):401-15.

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