Friday, November 19, 2004

In Defense of Patients: Pro-Care Health Policy

In recent weeks, health care worker conscience-over-care laws have captured increasing attention across the country. Sixteen state legislatures are either considering or have already passed such bills, which would protect workers who choose not to provide care to their patients. That these states are widely distributed geographically suggests that conscience-over-care laws present a fundamental challenge to American health care.

In many ways, they threaten the foundations of health services in this country and the very perception of medical care. For centuries, the ethics of medical professions has been rooted in the dictates of Hippocrates, whose seminal treatise emphasizes patient care over personal preference. Health care has stood apart from other fields largely because its workers assumed great personal sacrifice for the benefit of society. This sacrifice represents a level of dedication that justifies the trust and authority society vests in doctors, pharmacists, nurses, and other health care professionals. Government has consistently codified the special requirements of being a health care worker through strict regulations on conduct and practice. For instance, Good Samaritan laws mandate that any qualified individual must lend assistance in an emergency. These laws find their origin in the long-standing values of health care as a noble pursuit in life.

The tradition of selflessness that defines health care is threatened by pro-preference activists seeking full freedom for medical professionals to make unfounded medical decisions—even if such decisions would hurt their patients. Pro-preference groups would undermine service to the sick in order to win superficial political battles. These groups are crusading for a backdoor ban on abortion by allowing doctors to renege on their duty to patient care. Similarly, their agenda includes a protracted attempt to make contraceptives difficult to obtain. The real sufferer in this politicization of medicine is the patient, whose very health is subject to the sway of partisan policy makers.

Instead, I propose a pro-care approach that champions the preservation of medicine's most sacred principles. To be pro-care is to be in favor of excellent medical services for all Americans and to view health care workers as individuals with an indispensible duty to the nation. In this spirit, I advocate a suspension of pro-preference, conscience-over-care laws that seek to reverse centuries of medical morality. If these laws are pursued, they must ensure that patients will always obtain care quickly, conveniently, and with no additional expense, regardless of medical practitioners' personal preferences. This pro-care philosophy underscores the central role that patients play in health care. The patient's welfare is the ultimate concern of good health care and the ultimate goal of every good health care worker.

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