February 22, 2024

The virtuous doctor

Hi there,

A dismaying report on the participation of health care workers in torture at Guantanamo Bay was released this week. An independent panel concluded that doctors and other health professionals had been involved in designing and monitoring torture regimes, including waterboarding and sleep deprivation.

It is scandalous enough that the American government used torture without learning that the members of the medical profession had been corrupted into colluding with it. The vocation of a doctor is to heal, not to harm. Primum non nocere is the centuries-old adage.

As bioethicist Craig Klugman points out (see article below), doctors must be men and women with high principles and moral courage. “We expect health care professionals to do the right thing even when that requires a display of extraordinary moral courage.”

How can this be achieved? More ethics codes and stern policy statements are unlikely to stop doctors from buckling under pressure from their superiors in the military. Dr Klugman suggests that medical courses be changed to discourage bullying and encourage whistleblowing. Amen to that, but will this be enough?

How do we learn how to be virtuous? Perhaps the answer begins long before students enter medical school. 

Michael Cook
What lessons can we learn from Guantanamo Bay?