Make no little plans; they have no power to stir men’s blood.

—Daniel Burnham

Politics is deadly to science-based medicine, and while I don’t often go for politics, the last eight years have seen subtle and not-so subtle predations on the practice of medicine. Will the new administration be able to promote the kind of change we need? Let’s review some of the challenges facing the Obama administration.

Ethical apocalypse

Bush’s evisceration of the Constitution of the United States has affected health care professionals. The military has likely always used psychologists to assist with interrogations, but the last eight years has seen a huge increase in the number of secret charges, unconsitutional imprisonment, and “forceful” interrogations. Military psychologists have been put in the position of choosing between what their country demand of them, and what their ethics and responsibilities to other human beings requires…

More…Additionally, the (now former) administration worked tirelessly to push through so-called “conscience clauses” during the waning days of their power. Given the challenges of the Mid-East, the economy, and other crises, it’s hard to imagine why they would think this should be a priority, but apparently giving health care providers legal protection to advance their own needs above those of their patients seemed like a good idea at the time.

Health care justice

For both ethical and economic reasons, health care should be acknowledged as a human right. Bush made some strides toward improving health care for seniors in giving them Medicare Part D, which helps pay for prescription drugs, but in every other way, he has failed to acknowledge our nation’s health care crisis. With millions of Americans uninsured and underinsured, we are all paying a heavy price.

Ethics demand a lot of physicians, independent of our political context. We cannot of course ignore context, as only a very few will be in a position to risk their lives or livelihoods in the name of ethics, but a good government will encourage ethical behavior. Ours has not.

Ethics are embedded in culture, so universal statements are often problematic. The AMA, hardly a left-wing organization, and one clearly arising from American soil, has a 9-point statement of medical ethics which should serve as a guide to American physicians, members or not. Following ethical principles toward social justice can be made easier or more difficult with the help of the government. Let’s take an example:

Principle VI: A physician shall, in the provision of appropriate patient care, except in emergencies, be free to choose whom to serve, with whom to associate, and the environment in which to provide medical care.

Principle VII: A physician shall recognize a responsibility to participate in activities contributing to the improvement of the community and the betterment of public health.

Principle IX: A physician shall support access to medical care for all people.

Doctors must be given the freedom to choose whom to treat. If I were forced to treat all-comers, I would quickly go broke an be of no use to anyone. However, my ethics dictate that I do my best to provide for good public health, and to advocate for access for all. The outgoing administration has made it perfectly clear that increasing access to health care is not a priority, and as millions have lost their jobs (and therefore their insurance) we have had to take care of more and more people for free, and more importantly have had to turn many away. As a healer, I can tell you it’s a lousy position to be in.

Politicization of science
It is perhaps inevitable that government appointments will be political, but the CDC has taken a real beating over the last eight years. In one famous incident, the Bush administration significantly altered the CDC’s evaluation of the effect of climate change on health. This is not a fringe issue—climate change effects public health through food, clean water, emerging infectious diseases, for example.

Moralistic inanity trumps science

The Bush administration has been praised for its efforts to fight AIDS in Africa, but many of their policies have made a mockery of medical science. AIDS activists in Africa understand the difference between faith-based and science-based medicine:

“We are now seeing a shift in recent years to abstinence only,” she said. “We are expected to abstain when we are young girls and to be faithful when we are married to men who rape us, who are not necessarily faithful to us, who batter us.” The women in the audience, several waiting to share their own stories of marital rape, applauded.

Were [a Ugandan AIDS activist] exhorted her audience to “denounce programs that are not evidence-based, that view AIDS as a moral issue, that undermine the issues that affect us, women’s rights. I want to be very clear — the abstinence-only business, women must say no!” (emphasis mine. –PalMD

Abstinence-only policies are not just for export. The Bush administration has made them a priority, despite their complete failure.

Politics kills science-based medicine

When politics trumps science, medicine suffers. If we are willing to compromise our science and our ethics as physicians for political expediency, we have failed our most sacred duties. If politics can open the door to deciding what is fact and what is fiction, then invalid medical ideas can walk right in. Dr. Gorski has written on how language can be co-opted to destroy meaning. When politicians join the war against science, they bring the power of the entire government to bear (for example, in funding agencies such as NCCAM). If science regains its position as the best way to understand reality, then the next four years may bode well for science-based medicine. I am cautiously optimistic that the next four years may turn the power of government toward better science and better health.


Posted by Peter Lipson

Peter A. Lipson, MD is a practicing internist and teaching physician in Southeast Michigan.  After graduating from Rush Medical College in Chicago, he completed his Internal Medicine residency at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. He currently maintains a private practice, and serves as a teaching physician at a large community hospital He also maintains appointments as a Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine at Wayne State University School of Medicine and at Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine, the first being a large, established medical school, the latter being a newly-formed medical school which will soon be accepting its first class of students.  He blogs at White Coat Underground at the Scientopia blog network. A primary goal of his writing is to illuminate the differences between science-based medicine and everything else.  His perspective as a primary care physician and his daily interaction with real patients gives him what he hopes is special insight into the current "De-lightenment" in medicine.  As new media evolve, pseudo-scientific, deceptive, and immoral health practices become more and more available to patients, making his job all that much more difficult---and all that much more interesting. Disclaimer: The views in all of of Dr. Lipson's writing are his alone.  They do not represent in any way his practice, hospital, employers, or anyone else. Any medical information is general and should not be applied to specific personal medical decisions.  Any medical questions should be directed to your personal physician.  Dr. Lipson will not answer any specific medical questions, and any emails and comments should be assumed public. Dr. Lipson receives no compensation for his writing. Dr. Lipson's posts for Science-Based Medicine are archived here.