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A Morality Tale

September 23, 2018
by Mark David Siegel

Hello Everyone,

Medicine is a moral profession.  As physicians, we must commit ourselves to our patients' welfare.  We must prioritize their needs above our own.  We must be honest, and we must devote ourselves to learning the art and science of medicine.  We must cultivate and cherish the trust society places in us.  As individuals and collectively, we must ensure that these principles guide our work.  We must uphold these expectations for ourselves and for each other.  

By those measures, this month has been a bad one for Medicine.  Reports emerged that a prominent cancer researcher concealed huge conflicts of interest when submitting research for publication.  In the eyes of the public, his alleged dishonesty casts doubt on the integrity of medical research in general.  Individual stories like these undermine the work of honest physician-scientists who devote themselves to understanding and curing disease.  They also challenge the premise of collaborations between industry and academia, which are essential to developing treatments.

Closer to home, concerns about sexual harassment erupted again like the reawakening of a dormant volcano.  That these concerns should reemerge, in the midst of the #MeToo movement, calls into question the core values of our academic medical center.  Should we even have to ask if trainees and junior faculty can depend on the integrity of senior faculty?  Should we have to ask if our medical school will honor its commitment to the just treatment of women and all members of our community?  Are we really committed, in action as well as words, to respect, equal opportunity, and safety?

By other measures, this month has been a good one, and may represent a turning point.  When his corruption was exposed, the cancer researcher resigned from his post.  When our dirty laundry was aired in the national press and more than a thousand voices registered their disgust, our school’s leadership took appropriate action.  I’m grateful that this week, as we return our gaze to sordid stories in Washington, the right outcome prevailed at home.

I don’t know why it is so difficult for some physicians to follow a straightforward moral code.  How attractive can money, fame, and power possibly be?  To breach the trust of our patients?  To exploit the faith junior colleagues and trainees place in us? 

As physicians, we must commit ourselves to a higher calling.  The reward is a professional life overflowing with meaning.  What can be more fulfilling than caring for patients, searching for cures, teaching each other, and exploring the wonders of medicine?  What more do we need?

The moral dimensions of medicine are inseparable from its deepest principles.  It resides in our honesty, in our devotion to patients, in our devotion to science, and in the faith we place in one another.  The principles are simple, timeless, and plainly visible if we choose to see them.  

Enjoy your Sunday, everyone.  I’m off to Roaring Brook, for the Annual Program Director’s Hike,

Mark

Submitted by Mark David Siegel on September 23, 2018