A loyal Ophthalmology Times® reader shared with me a recent illuminating editorial on the history of physicians’ responses to plagues and the duties of us doctors in the current coronavirus epidemic.
The author, a cardiologist, notes that multiple medical societies assert that physicians have no right to deny care to patients in order to protect themselves or their family members:
The AMA, in 1847, issued a Code of Medical Ethics stating that “When pestilence prevails” its members have a duty “to face the danger, and to continue their labors for the alleviation of suffering, even at the jeopardy of their own lives.” This remains the AMA’s stand today.
Previously by Dr. McDonnell: Coronavirus response: Generations react differently to COVID-19
The American College of Physicians asserts that “the ethical imperative for physicians to provide care” overrides “the risk to the treating physician, even during epidemics.”
In a fascinating bit of history, the author then describes cases when physicians fell far short of idealistic standard:
When the Antonine Plague struck Europe from 165 to 180 A.D., about one-third of the population died and many of the Roman legions that ensured peace and stability were rendered inoperative. Terror-stricken physicians, including the famous Galen, fled cities such as Rome for the safer countryside.
In 1382, Venice, Italy passed a law forbidding doctors from leaving the city.
In 1793, many distinguished Philadelphia physicians fled the city in the face of a yellow fever epidemic.
Closer to our own time, he describes “health workers” abandoning patients during an Ebola epidemic in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1995, and points out that a SARS outbreak in Toronto in 2003 saw “many health care workers refusing to show up at their jobs.” So much for policy statements by medical associations!
Related: Li Wenliang: Ophthalmologist hero
Sandeep Jauhar, M.D. In a Pandemic, Do Doctors Still Have a Duty to Treat? New York Times, April 2, 2020