Opinion

When we care the most, we are at our best as physicians

A message to all AMA members from the chair of the AMA Board of Trustees, Cecil B. Wilson, MD

By Cecil B. Wilson, MDis an internist in private practice in Winter Park, Fla. He served as chair of the AMA Board of Trustees during 2006-07 and was AMA president during 2010-11. Posted Dec. 11, 2006.

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The holiday season is a time when we celebrate caring. We do that by bringing gifts and greetings to each other and by reaching out to others in need. And it is the "caring principle" that distinguishes the medical profession.

Caring is central to what we as physicians do. Caring and curing describe the profession. And those golden moments when you and I have been at our absolute best have been the very moments when we cared the most. One of our congressional critics has provided the backhanded compliment: "The trouble with doctors is that they just care too much."

To the contrary, I would suggest there is no such thing as caring too much, only caring too little.

In the world of business, the adage is "buyer beware." In our profession, the Holy Grail is to focus on what is best for our patients.

The contrast is stark.

The caring principle is illustrated by Dr. James Akin, who in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina sees patients in an abandoned Lord & Taylor department store, and by Dr. Bryan Bertucci, who cares for patients in a trailer parked in the lot of a shutdown Walmart; both in New Orleans.

It is the legions of American physicians who every year provide free care on mission trips to Third World countries; and who staff volunteer clinics for the needy in our country.

It is the oncologist who spends virtually the entire day sitting with the parents he had just told were losing their infant son to leukemia -- total strangers to him two months ago but now intimate members of a single family of grief.

It is described in the ethics statement read to the AMA House of Delegates by Dr. Fredrick Abrams, the recipient of the Isaac Hays, MD, and John Bell, MD, Award for Leadership in Medical Ethics and Professionalism, which reads in part "I will practice my art and my science to the benefit of my patients. ... I will offer care and comfort when they are ill."

The book Caring Physicians of the World, published by the World Medical Assn., recognizes 65 physicians who exemplify the "caring principle." Among them is our own Dr. Edward Annis, former president of the AMA and of the WMA.

The following paragraph from the book introduces Dr. Annis as an outstanding exponent of one type of caring.

"The term 'Caring Physicians' immediately conjures up images of those who spend their lives serving patients in poor and disease-stricken environments. There are, however, physicians with roles equally important. These are physicians whose caring is manifest by working in the public arena to influence public policy to meet the health care needs of patients and the physicians who serve them."

It is in the public arena where the caring efforts of the AMA and all physicians are so critical now as we continue to insist that Congress and the Bush administration remember the promise they made to provide health care to America's seniors.

Rep. Tom Price, MD (R, Ga.), acknowledged the importance of the "caring principle" in a health care financing system that needs major reform when he said, "The altruism of physicians is the only thing that holds our system together."

When the history of this era finally is written, I am confident historians will see America's physicians as leading the changes that improved health care in this nation. Not because physicians had all the power. Far from it. Not because physicians had all the funding. Far from it. But because physicians cared more.

Cecil B. Wilson, MD is an internist in private practice in Winter Park, Fla. He served as chair of the AMA Board of Trustees during 2006-07 and was AMA president during 2010-11.

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