The Many Faces of Medical Professionalism

siegler-scopeEvery patient wants their doctor to be a professional. But the broader concept of “medical professionalism” is not a cut-and-dry matter, as it opens the door to debates over how physicians interact with politics and society, the regulation of doctors’ ethical and legal behavior, and the role of the physician in the new world of health care. Those are large enough questions to warrant a year of discussion in the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics Seminar Series, and a centerpiece slot at the 23rd annual Dorothy J. MacLean Fellows Conference, held last week.

“In recent decades, there has been a renewed focus in medical education on professionalism being seen as a way to improve patient care, strengthen the doctor-patient relationship, reduce conflict of interest, improve physician self-regulation and ultimately to strengthen the alliance between medicine, patients, and society,” said Mark Siegler, Director of the MacLean Center, in his opening remarks.

If professionalism is too abstract, the themes on the first day of the conference could be simplified as what a doctor should and should not do in today’s tumultuous health care waters. Driving that instability is the ever-growing chunk of the world economy eaten up by the health care industry, said the conference’s first speaker, Arthur Rubenstein of the University of Pennsylvania (and formerly of UCMC). The United States spent $2.3 trillion on health care in 2009, he said, roughly equivalent to the GDP of France. With economies slowing around the world, those costs are unsustainable, and physicians must come together as a profession to work with patients and policymakers to find solutions that benefit all parties.

“We need to do something about that as a medical profession. If we don’t, the future is going to be quite problematic,” Rubenstein said. “If in the financial crisis which we are now surely in, at both the state and national level, the medical profession puts their own interests before those of patients – particularly the poor and elderly patients – our now privileged position in society will be given up, and our contract with society will be changed for the worse, and we may not recover in the foreseeable future.”

Participation was also one take-home message of Christine Cassel‘s talk, which emphasized how the classical definition of the medical professional would have to evolve in the new health care landscape envisioned by last year’s Affordable Care Act. Cassel, the president and CEO of the American Board of Internal Medicine (and another former UChicagoan), said that the three primary goals of health care reforms are affordability, access, and quality. Creating a system that addresses all three will require balancing the intrinsic motivations of physicians to help patients with the extrinsic motivations of financial and regulatory oversight. A new kind of medical professionalism that accepts a health care system based around technology and teamwork will help the field achieve that balance with a minimum of pain, Cassel said.

“To my mind it’s a new kind of professionalism that leaves behind these old ideas of what the nostalgic profession was, and becomes committed to collaboration, evidence, measurement, and transparency so that it’s not at odds with accountability, but in fact becomes accountability,” Cassel said. “This is a challenge for many of us, and it’s going to take change.”

A case study of how that change can happen was presented by Troy Brennan, Chief Medical Officer for the pharmacy chain CVS. Brennan recapped efforts over the last decade to eliminate gifts from pharmaceutical companies to physicians at academic medical centers. While this practice was once thought to be innocuous by many physicians, others argued that it created a conflict of interest. In an example of extrinsic regulation to alter physician behavior, the American Board of Internal Medicine proposed that academic medical centers regulate these interactions between Big Pharma and physicians – an initiative supported by medical students. As a result, physician-industry relationships dropped, though a CVS study is still collecting data on whether that has affected prescription behavior, driving more doctors toward prescribing generics instead of brand name drugs.

Preserving physicians’ integrity and reputation is important for the role of the medical professional proposed by Paul Starr of Princeton University. In a time of ideological polarization and lack of trust in public institutions, it’s important for professionals to bring trustworthy knowledge to the public debate, Starr said, citing the recent Republican debate where candidate Michele Bachmann claimed a link between the HPV vaccine and mental disability.

“When prominent political figures make uninformed statements on national television about the effects of a vaccine, or distort the findings of researchers on a cancer screening test, then politicians may have a real, substantial impact on public understanding,” Starr said. “It is just at those moments when the scientific community should hold its ground and insist on abiding by the evidence.”

But can medical professionalism also get in the way of reforming health care? As the economist and lawyer Richard Epstein pointed out in the final talk of the afternoon, professionalism is meant to both accumulate knowledge and expertise and monopolize a given trade. New, less costly health care models – such as cheap walk-in clinics at CVS or Wal-Mart  or transferring routine medical care to non-physician workers such as nurse practitioners – are often resisted by medical societies protecting their turf. Thus, professionalism is an obstacle to the effect of market forces on health care cost – “If you’re trying to figure out how to run a system of medicine, it’s too important to leave it up to doctors,” Epstein said.

“The single most important question about the failure of American medicine is why are there not new voices showing up?,” Epstein said. “You take people that are not familiar with the traditional medical hierarchy and they try to radically deconstruct the provision of health care in a way that is necessarily consumer driven.”

[A recap of Day Two of the conference, including the announcement of the $50,000 MacLean Center Prize in Clinical Ethics and Health Outcomes and a discussion of the book Open Wound: The Tragic Obsession of Dr. William Beaumont, will be posted tomorrow.]

About Rob Mitchum (525 Articles)
Rob Mitchum is communications manager at the Computation Institute, a joint initiative between The University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.
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