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First Do No Harm


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First Do No Harm

  1. 1. CHAPTER 1 A NEW MEANING FOR ‘FIRST DO NO HARM’ I N THE 21ST CENTURY Heights by great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight. They, while their fellow men slept, were toiling far into the night. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882), poet and educator he Hippocratic Oath is an example of outstanding medical T leadership which has endured for more than 24 centuries. While some of the principles are more than outdated, many remain steadfast examples of how we should lead our lives as medical practitioners. T H E H I P P O C R AT I C OAT H I swear by Apollo Physician and Asclepius and Hygieia and Panaceia and all the gods and goddesses, making them my witnesses, that I will fulfil according to my ability and judgment this oath and this covenant: To hold him who has taught me this art as equal to my parents and to live my life in partnership with him, and if he is in need of money to give him a share of mine, and to regard his offspring as equal to my brothers in male lineage and to teachRowe Pages.indd c11 15/7/09 8:47:12 AM
  2. 2. {2} f irst do no harm them this art—if they desire to learn it—without fee and covenant; to give a share of precepts and oral instruction and all the other learning to my sons and to the sons of him who has instructed me and to pupils who have signed the covenant and have taken an oath according to the medical law, but no one else. I will apply dietetic measures for the benefit of the sick according to my ability and judgment; I will keep them from harm and injustice. I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect. Similarly I will not give to a woman an abortive remedy. In purity and holiness I will guard my life and my art. I will not use the knife, not even on sufferers from stone, but will withdraw in favour of such men as are engaged in this work. Whatever houses I may visit, I will come for the benefit of the sick, remaining free of all intentional injustice, of all mischief and in particular of sexual relations with both female and male persons, be they free or slaves. What I may see or hear in the course of the treatment or even outside of the treatment in regard to the life of men, which on no account one must spread abroad, I will keep to myself, holding such things shameful to be spoken about. If I fulfil this oath and do not violate it, may it be granted to me to enjoy life and art, being honoured with fame among all men for all time to come; if I transgress it and swear falsely, may the opposite of all this be my lot.1 Since the time of Hippocrates, the practice of medicine as a higher calling and life career has been based on high ethical standards and proud traditions. Every day doctors in every country of the world practise medicine according to a creed that has been handed down through generations: Primum non nocere, or ‘first do no harm’. In the opinion of some scholars, Hippocrates originated this creed in his writing on Epidemics in the statement ‘As to diseases make a habit of two things—to help or at least to do no harm’. The creed has become an international fundamental principle to remind 1 Translation from the Greek by Ludwig Edelstein (1943), The Hippocratic Oath: Text, Translation, and Interpretation, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.Rowe Pages.indd c12 15/7/09 8:47:12 AM
  3. 3. A new meaning for first do no harm in the 21st century {3} doctors to consider possible harm to patients in every interaction and intervention. It could be argued that the creed is even more relevant in the 21st century, as many expensive technological developments in medical, surgical and pharmaceutical treatments risk increasing human suffering and can create ethical dilemmas, particularly at the end of life. In this book, we are advocating for a broader definition of ‘first do no harm’, to include not just ensuring the safety of our patients but also doing no harm to ourselves. We can’t be effective doctors in the long term if we neglect our own health and wellbeing. In challenging the meaning of the creed, we need to be mindful of the potential personal challenges of 21st century medicine. These new challenges include: New ethical issues in clinical practice related to human genomics and changes in medical technology. Keeping up to date with enormous advances in quality patient care. Dealing with health information overload. Meeting patient demand for early diagnosis and access to new expensive health technology. Balancing the pressures of being the gateway to finite health resources with the needs of our individual patients. Pressures associated with medical workforce shortages. Changes in the roles of women doctors following the significant influx of women into the medical profession over the last 50 years. Decreasing patient satisfaction with many aspects of medical practice. Increasing litigation. Health risks such as new infections and the impact of sedentary lifestyles. Escalating medical workplace violence. Increasing government regulation and interference in our clinical work. Increasing administrative demands in patient and practice record keeping and reporting.Rowe Pages.indd c13 15/7/09 8:47:12 AM
  4. 4. {4} f irst do no harm Meeting all the above challenges while still caring for our patients. Even with the best intentions, we sometimes find ourselves suffering unwanted personal consequences as a result of our work as healers. It seems to be increasingly difficult to retain a commitment to being a great clinician while leading a balanced life. BEING A DOCTOR CAN BE A RISKY BUSINESS Being a doctor can be a health risk. There are many examples of doctors being harmed in the course of responding to the needs of their patients and there are many reasons why doctors experience high levels of burnout and mental health problems. In the past, suicide has been reported as being twice as common in male doctors and four to six times as common in female doctors than in the general population, but there are very few studies of recent trends. Unfortunately many of us perceive asking for support from a colleague as a weakness. Yet many of us experience serious marital disharmony, mental health concerns or use excessive alcohol or other drugs. Such is the stigma attached to these issues that very little research has been conducted on the extent of the problems among medical practitioners. We may be forced by medical registration boards to undergo supervised counselling or treatment if we are identified as being in crisis, but it is more common for us to deal with health issues by self- treatment and self-referral and miss out on vital preventive health care and mental health care. Many of us don’t have our own doctor. Apparently many of us don’t believe we get sick or deserve high- quality impartial health care. On the other hand, if we are proactive about our own health and wellbeing, we are more likely to be able to provide consistent high- quality patient care. By doing so, we act in our patients’ best interestsRowe Pages.indd c14 15/7/09 8:47:12 AM
  5. 5. A new meaning for first do no harm in the 21st century {5} in the short and long term. We participate fully in the medical workforce for longer. We set a good example for our patients and for our younger colleagues about the importance of self-care and peer support. The new meaning of ‘first do no harm’ includes a consideration of ourselves { as well as our patients. This is not to be confused with selfishness or ‘looking out for number one’. It is about a long-term obligation to our own wellbeing, health and safety, which is essential for the competent medical care of others and our optimal participation in medical life. }Rowe Pages.indd c15 15/7/09 8:47:12 AM