Exploring Human Potential

The Religion of Medicine.

Posted on | February 4, 2015 | 6 Comments


Mike Magee

This week, New York Times introspective columnist, David Brooks wrote, “Over the past few years, there has been a sharp rise in the number of people who are atheist, agnostic or without religious affiliation. A fifth of all adults and a third of the youngest adults fit into this category….As secularism becomes more prominent and self-confident, its spokesmen have more insistently argued that secularism should not be seen as an absence — as a lack of faith — but rather as a positive moral creed.”

That got me thinking – and my conclusion was that, for me, and perhaps for my father as well, Medicine has been our religion. This begins to explain my world view and some of the discomfort I feel (and often express) when my fellow disciples fall short on our vows.

Were there a “Ten Commandments” for this religion called “Medicine”, what would they be?

I. Put your patients interests above all other interests, including your own.

II. Believe in science, and make judgements based on the best current knowledge available.

III. If there is a person in need, respond, without prejudice or delay.

IV. Maintain your own physical, mental and spiritual health so that you are able to offer your patients the entire value of your full human potential.

V. Touch your patients – with your hands, with compassion, and with understanding.

VI. Treat each patient as an individual. Maintain faith in the wisdom of individualized decision making within the patient-physician relationship.

VII. Listen carefully to what is said and especially what is unsaid.

VIII. When you make an error, as you surely will, admit it directly, apologize, and learn from it.

IX. Recognize your own prejudices, and work to ensure they do not compromise your ability to care for others.

X. In your actions, behaviors, and beliefs, bring honor to your profession and to all those whose lives have been entrusted to you.

Quietly, without realizing it, I and many other physicians, have been practicing this “religion” for many years. It has brought meaning and value to our lives, and occasions of sorrow and disappointment. For most of our years, we have practiced this religion in the privacy of the patient-physician relationship, applying it’s tenets as best we could, with the encouragement of our fellow disciples, our patients, and their families.

What to do when a disciple transgresses? This always has been a challenge, especially in the early years. Like the time in Raleigh, NC, when on-call, I phoned the attending to let him know an accident victim with a crushed bladder needed to go to the operating room, and his three word response, “Black or White?” That was disappointing.

But in modern times, the boundaries of our religion have extended into the public space, and some of our own disciples have embraced those spaces – in politics, or business, or media – while maintaining a dual identity as “physician”. It is in this public space that I have often experienced discomfort and questioning about my own religion.

Shouldn’t the “church leaders” have been more vocal in admonishing the “legitimate rape” remarks of Congressman Todd Atkins in 2012?

And what about Dr. Rand Paul’s comment on immunizations in the middle of a U.S. Measles epidemic, ““I’ve heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines.”  Should church leaders go after this wayward public leader/parishioner? He has had no reticience in going after them, like when he said, “The A.M.A. has been struggling for years, and they do not represent doctors across the country. And AAPS has been growing dramatically as doctors who want to fight against big government join together under a different banner. The A.M.A. doesn’t represent me. I’ve never been a member.”

It’s not that this disciple doesn’t have the right to advance the religion of Libertarianism above his own former religion Medicine. Of course he does. But must I still accept him as a member of my religious community since he clearly has made his choice?

Same holds true for Dr. Mehmet Oz. He’s joined the highly profitable religion, “Herbalism”. That’s fine. But does he belong in my church? And why did I have to be led by a third year medical student from Rochester in October, 2014, who had the courage to speak up. Why weren’t my own church leaders challenging this huckster? It’s just a bit unnerving to hear a junior parishioner say aloud what others are thinking, “Organized medicine has an interest in protecting physicians as a profession. They want to maintain the prestige, trust, and income that physicians have historically received in the US. In order to protect the profession as a whole, organized medicine sometimes has to protect individual doctors, even if they are not acting in the best interest of patients. The AMA may fear that undermining Dr. Oz could undermine overall trust in doctors.”

I’m an older parishioner now. I’ve been around this church for a long, long time. And these dual parishioner problems are not new. They’ve tripped up others in the past, like Senator Bill Frist who affirmed, based on video tape reviews, that Terri Schiavo was “not somebody in persistent vegetative state”.

But sometimes, the dual parishioner does us proud, and boldly declares our religion’s supremacy above all others. Take for example, Chick Koop, when on release of his landmark HIV/AIDS Report, said simply, “I’m the nation’s doctor, not the nation’s chaplain.” He’s why I still belong to this religion.

For Health Commentary, I’m Mike Magee


6 Responses to “The Religion of Medicine.”

  1. Denise Link, RN, NP
    February 4th, 2015 @ 1:08 pm

    Thank you for another excellent editorial on the importance of being true to one’s calling. All practitioners of the healing arts, not just physicians, would do well to adhere to your Ten Commandments, especially our regulatory boards whose charge is to protect the public, not their licensees. I was proud to be a member of two nursing boards, New Jersey and Arizona, who worked very hard to do just that. The first commandment has served me well when I found myself in situations where there was a conflict between an employer and my professional duty to patients. Thank you Dr. Magee for your affirming words and wisdom.

  2. Mike Magee
    February 4th, 2015 @ 6:01 pm

    Many thanks, Denise, for your comment. Everything I wrote for docs goes double for nurses!Mike

  3. Art Ulene
    February 4th, 2015 @ 10:30 pm

    Mike…. After reading this commentary, I feel proud and privileged to call you a friend and colleague. Of course that’s the way I always felt about you, but this column reaches one level higher. Thanks for your wisdom and honesty.

  4. Mike Magee
    February 5th, 2015 @ 11:00 am

    Many thanks, Art! Means a lot to me. Best to you, Priscilla and family! Mike

  5. Jonathan Spero
    May 22nd, 2015 @ 12:27 am

    This is an awesome list and a great moral point. It truly doesn’t matter what moral creed you come from – protect your patients at all costs and make smart decisions with data. Many thanks Mike!

  6. Mike Magee
    May 22nd, 2015 @ 10:50 am

    Thanks very much for your comment, Jonathan!

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