Physicians must know how to blow the whistle on torture

Physician complicity in torture at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib reveals a serious gap in medical education, said former Yale professor Barbara Burtness, M.D., now chief of head and neck medical oncology at Philadelphia’s Fox Chase Cancer Center.

Speaking at the Program for Humanities in Medicine in January, Burtness said that physicians and other health care providers had abetted such tortures as waterboarding, granted medical clearance for harsh interrogations, permitted forced feeding, offered privileged information on prisoners’ phobias, withheld care and falsified death certificates. In Iraq, she said, “they medically approved biopsychosocial interrogation plans.”

“I wondered,” said Burtness, “Were they people I had gone to medical school with, or people I had trained?”

Medical students, she said, should learn standards for treatment of prisoners and understand such ethical codes as the Declaration of Tokyo, which addresses torture. They should recognize signs of torture and understand that, if they participate in abuse, they could be accused of war crimes. Physicians should also know how to blow the whistle: just as they carry notes on how to measure blood gases, she said, they should carry phone numbers for reporting torture.