The Hippocratic Myth: Why Doctors Are Under Pressure to Ration Care, Practice Politics, and Compromise Their Promise to Heal

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When we're ill, we trust in doctors to put our well-being first. But medicine's expanding capability and soaring costs are putting this promise at risk. Increasingly, society is calling upon physicians to limit care and to use their skills on behalf of health plan bureaucrats, public officials, national security, and courts of law. And doctors are answering this call. They're endangering patients, veiling moral choices behind the language of science and, at times, compromising our liberties. In The Hippocratic Myth, Dr. M. Gregg Bloche marshals his expertise in medicine and the law to expose how:

*Doctors are pushed into acting both as caregivers and cost-cutters, compromising their fidelity to patients

*Politics keeps doctors from giving war veterans the help they need

*Insurers and hospital administrators pressure doctors to discontinue life-saving treatment, even when patients and family members object

*Medicine has become a weapon in America's battles over abortion, child custody, criminal responsibility, and the rights of gays and lesbians

*The war on terror has exploited clinical psychology to inflict harm

Challenging, provocative, and insightful, The Hippocratic Myth breaks the code of silence and issues a powerful warning about the need for doctors to forge a new compact with patients and society.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Bloche doesn't balk when it comes to laying it on the line. He gives readers the bleak news: insurers have the right to "pick and choose medical opinions," regardless of need, which puts doctors in an increasingly difficult position. In Bloche's first book, doctors are political animals (he argues that " a political act") and moral questions abound. As doctors increasingly enter courtrooms to help determine child custody cases or mental competency, practitioners are also "moral arbiters and enforcers." And a "Doctors as Warriors" section offers a fascinating profile of "new" medical professionals but is dense enough to lose casual readers. Bloche's case studies, however, are particularly effective: a patient decides to stop dialysis knowing that it will result in her certain death; a soldier with "classic symptoms of PTSD" struggles to find coverage and competent care. What Bloche makes terribly clear is that the crisis we face encompasses medical care, coverage, and cost. He deserves kudos for taking on such disheartening, pressing subjects, for asking tough questions, and for finally offering dramatic reforms. This is a valuable look at the world of medicine. (Mar. 15)
From the Publisher
"Bloche writes with sensitivity and empathy not just about patients and physicians caught up in managed-care catastrophes, but about all the weird variations on the patient-physician dyad spawned by the expanding public role for medicine ... The empathy, sensitivity and care of his arguments are not surprising, given his background, but they are no less laudable for that." — The Washington Post


"Bloche deserves kudos for taking on such disheartening, pressing subjects, for asking tough questions, and for finally offering dramatic reforms. This is a valuable look at the world of medicine.” —Publishers Weekly

"An intriguing examination of the moral and political dimensions of some of the most important medical issues of the day."—Sandeep Jauhar, author of Intern: A Doctor's Initiation

“In the Hippocratic Myth, Dr. Gregg Bloche offers a beautifully written, thoughtful, and compelling account of the many ways doctors today are called upon to compromise their adherence to the Hippocratic Oath while appearing to remain faithful.  Bloche looks at this cluster of issues in different contexts, from the covert rationing of care to use of medical skills in the context of lethal injections.  As a doctor and a legal scholar, Bloche knows firsthand what the tensions are. The Hippocratic Myth offers readers a series of vivid, sometimes heart-wrenching stories in the context of a careful portrayal of the challenges facing our health care delivery system.  Bloche’s account will appeal to a general public hungry for ways to make sense of doctors’ role within our health care system.  An important, subtle and powerful book.”—Elyn Saks, author of The Center Cannot Hold

“As Gregg Bloche argues so persuasively in this important new book, it is but a short distance from the Hippocratic Oath to medical hypocrisy.  In the contemporary world, where medicine so often finds itself enmeshed in multiple social, political, and industrial interests, doctors can no longer honestly promise exclusive devotion to their patients.  The time has come, Bloche powerfully demonstrates, for transparency and democratic debate about the hard choices we face and the future of professional ideals. “ —Allan M. Brandt, The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product that Defined America

“Gregg Bloche deftly tells real-life stories that capture medicine’s expanding public role – and its contravention of the Hippocratic promise of doctors’ ‘uncompromising loyalty’ to patients.  He may not have arrived at a precise definition of the ‘permissible ends of medicine,’ as he writes, but he pull us along much closer to one with this very thoughtful book.”—Susan Dentzer, editor of Health Affairs and former health correspondent for The NewsHour

 “Gregg Bloche’s provocative book deserves careful reading by everyone who cares about physician integrity and the social compact between doctors and patients."—Harvey Fineberg, President of the Institute of Medicine

“In The Hippocratic Myth, Gregg Bloche – physician, lawyer, and ethicist – guides the reader to acknowledge and accept the reality that doctors are agents of society as well as guardians of their patients.  Bloche skillfully weaves together an extraordinary range of stories and accounts of medical involvement in rationing, in war, even in capital punishment and torture, most of it based on his own research. “—Daniel Wikler, Harvard School of Public Health

“Confronting issues that policy makers commonly seek to evade, and building on his own experiences as a physician and attorney, Greg Bloche examines the many ways in which the Hippocratic ideal - that physicians serve exclusively as advocates for their patients- is increasingly compromised. Recognizing the inevitable economic constraints in doing all that medical knowledge and technology makes possible, he explores alternative frameworks for addressing conflicts of interest in more ethical ways. The questions explored are central to the future of an equitable and ethical system of health care and merit much discussion and debate as we go forward.”—David Mechanic Ph.D. Director and Rene' Dubos University Professor, Institute for Health, Health Care Policy, and Aging Research, Rutgers University

"Bloche draws the curtain back on the central tension in health care: we can do far more in medicine than we can pay for – and somebody has to decide what gets done.  Who should that be? Doctors try to hide behind their oath and claim they act exclusively in the interests of patients, but Bloche shows that this is a myth.  They are entangled in the economics of incentives and limits.  Physicians and patients alike will be disturbed, even angered, by this book.  That’s why they must read it."—Stuart M. Butler, The Heritage Foundation

Chris Adrian
Bloche writes with sensitivity and empathy not just about patients and physicians caught up in managed-care catastrophes, but about all the weird variations on the patient-physician dyad spawned by the expanding public role for medicine with which he's so concerned: physician and torturee, physician and defendant, physician and condemned man. And he makes careful analyses of the excuses physicians make for their behavior as individuals and in groups…Bloche's argument is urgent and accurate…
—The Washington Post
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780230603738
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 3/15/2011
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

M. Gregg Bloche is an award-winning health policy expert and a professor of law at Georgetown University. He has written for the New York Times, the New England Journal of Medicine, and other leading publications and has appeared on 60 Minutes, NBC, CNN, ABC, National Public Radio, and more. Bloche, who received a Guggenheim Fellowship to write The Hippocratic Myth was a health care advisor to President Obama's 2008 campaign and a consultant to the World Health Organization.
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Read an Excerpt

The Hippocratic Myth

Why Doctors Are Under Pressure to Ration Care, Practice Politics, and Compromise Their Promise To Heal

By M. Gregg Bloche

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2011 M. Gregg Bloche
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-230-60373-8



Hippocrates' myth

Dr. Mara gave my mother her last laugh. Every week or so, Dr. Mara, wearing black, would approach me near the nurses' station to tell me Mom had said, "It's time." At stake were the high-priced bags of bloodclotting cells Dr. Mara reluctantly hung over Mom's bed every few days. The donated cells kept her alive. Leukemia had wiped out her bone marrow, and she couldn't make blood cells. Unless the little straw-colored bags kept appearing atop her intravenous line, she would bleed into her brain, kidneys, and bowels.

Mom's cancer was untreatable. Johns Hopkins had discharged her, and money was a problem. But her dismal prognosis made her eligible for Medicare's hospice benefit. She was a winning financial proposition for any hospice program that would have her—unless the clotting cells were part of the deal. Mom, though, insisted on them. So did I. She was at least as mentally active as I—and determined to astonish her doctors by surviving long past the time they'd given her.

All but one hospice refused to take her unless she agreed to forgo the clotting cells. Transfusions delayed death unnaturally, we were told. They went against hospice thinking about the need to accept the end of life. The program that took her counted on the promise of death within a few weeks. Weeks, though, stretched into months, and Mom didn't die. Instead, she kept consuming clotting cells and incurring costs that Medicare didn't cover.

Mom stayed alert, without pain, as end-stage leukemia patients often do until their last hours. The first time Dr. Mara told me Mom was "ready" for the treatments to stop, I went into her room girded for the final farewell. But she insisted she'd said no such thing. She begged me to keep the cells coming, which I did. A week later, Dr. Mara, Mom, and I repeated this cycle.

It became a ritual. Mom wouldn't behave like a "good" hospice patient. She wouldn't go without a fight, and Dr. Mara gave her one. Dr. Mara told me the cells were a gift, wasted on my mother since she couldn't be saved. Mom joked about Dr. Mara's black dress and unrelenting efforts to close the Final Sale, until, eventually, leukemia had the Final Say.

Dr. Mara, I suspect, was sincere in her belief that my mother would've been better off without that final fight. She would've taken offense, I'm sure, at the suggestion that money affected either her clinical judgment or her understanding of Mom's wishes. But she also felt that the clotting cells were a precious thing, to be preserved for those who might most benefit from them. I would have seen things her way too, were my mother's final hopes not at stake.

I teach and write about health policy. I've cared for patients and advised public officials on what to do about soaring medical costs. During the 2008 presidential campaign, I helped to formulate President Obama's health reform plan. So I'm painfully aware that our medical spending habits are unsustainable. The numbers are scary—the fiscal equivalent of global warming. Within twenty-five years, if we keep on the current track, we'll be spending nearly a third of our income on medical care, unless we learn to say no to pricey treatments that produce tiny benefits.

But don't tell that to me when it's my mother's life that's at stake. And if you're a political office-holder, tell it to the public at your peril. Alarm over "rationing," real or imagined, may well end your career.

As citizens and shoppers, we demand limits on health spending—by voting for politicians who promise to cut taxes and by surfing the web or heading to Wal-Mart to find the lowest prices for products and services. Our pursuit of the best price—for everything from cars, to computers, to lawn care—forces American firms into the breach against medical costs, since more than half of all Americans get their health care coverage through the workplace. But we don't want our doctors to step into the breach alongside the cost-cutters. We expect them to stand with us when we're ill and afraid. We expect them to stand by their Hippocratic commitment to their patients, whatever the consequences.

In most medical schools, students make this commitment by reciting the Hippocratic Oath in formal assembly. Some of what they recite hasn't worn well with time. The Oath forbids abortion, rejects surgery, and promises free medical training to its swearers' sons. But the Oath's core premise has stood for more than 2,000 years. "In every house where I come," the Oath proclaims, "I will enter only for the good of my patients." This precept— the doctor's promise to stand for his or her patients without compromise— became a global ideal. It was slow to catch on. The Oath wasn't widely sworn to until centuries after Hippocrates' time. Yet eventually it spread throughout the world, beyond the boundaries of any nation or religion. It was carried west by Roman conquerors, then east by Muslim caliphates. It survived Europe's Dark Ages and the fall and rise of faiths and empires. It became fundamental to the medical profession's conception of itself and to patients' expectations of their doctors. And its core premise—uncompromising commitment to patients—has been embraced by clinical psychologists and others who care for the ill.

Yet this commitment is under unprecedented threat. Medicine's escalating costs and capabilities have transformed it from a politically unnoticed endeavor into a high-profile industry. We can't sustain health care spending that soars to a third or more of our gross domestic product. We'll eventually insist that doctors say no to beneficial or even lifesaving treatments because society can't afford them. As I show in this book, physicians are already doing so, covertly. And we'll demand that doctors put their skills and science to use for myriad nontherapeutic purposes—indeed, they already are. Advances in medicine's capabilities are spawning new public applications. Drugs and medical devices are being used to interrogate terror suspects, kill condemned inmates, and enhance performance at school and work, in sports, and in battle. Doctors opine in court and the press on who should be blamed for overeating, smoking, acting on sexual desire, and committing crimes of violence. Medicine, moreover, has become a weapon in our national battles over abortion, same-sex desire, and other social and cultural matters.

How to square this expanding range of social purposes with medicine's 2,000-year-old promise to stand by the sick is the central focus of this book. It won't do, I argue, to reject all uses of medical skill, science, and judgment for nontherapeutic purposes. Medicine's soaring costs have made clinical judgment a public matter, and doctors will need to become wise stewards of limited resources. Leaps in our scientific understanding of mind and body can't be cordoned within the clinical realm; innovators beyond the bedside will inevitably seize on the possibilities. Some of these, I contend, pose grave threats to the profession's trustworthiness in the eyes of patients. Others are putting personal liberty and privacy at growing risk. And medicine's rising power as an arbiter of public morals is usurping the authority of our institutions of self-government.

Medicine's furtherance of social purposes is oftentimes veiled. Doctors ration care covertly, and clinical judgment conceals myriad moral and cultural norms. Beliefs about the proper scope of personal responsibility and the balance between freedom and security shape diagnostic categories and therapeutic recommendations. This book probes for medicine's hidden moral content with an eye toward better understanding of the profession's public and intimate roles.

Conflict among medicine's aims, I argue, animates the health sphere's most bitter moral controversies. Curing and caring are sometimes at odds with each other and often at odds with medicine's public purposes. Stewardship of scarce resources, criminal justice and national security, and support for shared moral beliefs are among these purposes. Struggles over who should receive pricey therapies, whether one or another psychiatric diagnosis should excuse a vicious crime, or whether behaviors scorned by many constitute mental illness reflect tensions among medicine's purposes. Debates over whether doctors should ration care or coach CIA interrogators reflect conflict between public purposes and Hippocratic commitment to patients.

Doctors encounter this conflict within work settings that put pressure on them to go along. Too often, they've gone too far. They've prescribed dubious therapies in response to dubious financial rewards, abetted torture, and covered up clandestine killings. We've countenanced these things, in America and abroad, by tolerating business and political arrangements that invite them. And doctors have rationalized these bad behaviors to themselves as somehow beneficial to patients, required to defeat foreign enemies, or otherwise necessary for the public good. The risk of such rationalization underscores the need to draw lines: to set clear limits on what doctors can do on society's and the state's behalf.

Power and Myth: Medicine's Public Roles

Before Hippocrates, ill health was a sign of divine dismay. The gods had expectations, not always knowable but best not crossed. Diagnosis and treatment demanded an appreciation of their whims and wants. Greek healers who came before Hippocrates were devoted to the supernatural. Asclepius, the Greek god of healing, started out as the mortal son of Apollo. In Homer's Iliad, he's both a warrior and a healer. By one account, Asclepius's powers grew to the point that he enraged Hades by reviving the dead, threatening to shrink Hades' domain. Hades conveyed his anger to Zeus, who killed the uppity mortal with a thunderbolt. This, in turn, aroused the wrath of Apollo. Apollo's retribution was quick: he slew the Cyclops, makers of thunderbolts. A chastened Zeus then tried to set things right with Apollo by bringing Asclepius back as a god. Priests of Asclepius were public officials. Ancient sources record their astonishing feats—impregnation of infertile women, restoration of sight to a man with empty eye sockets, removal of spear points from soldiers' lungs, and enabling the lame to walk simply by instructing them to do so. Medicine's therapeutic and social roles were, at the time, without distinction. Cure required pleasing God. It was thus a public matter, no less so than pleas for divine intervention to avert military or natural disaster. Cities sponsored temples and prescribed rituals. Patients pursued cure by doing their social and religious duty, and priests saw their supplicants' welfare as a by-product of devotion to the gods.

Hippocrates and his followers broke sharply with this way of thinking. They made the radical claim that illness arises from the natural world and that cures thus should be based on the workings of the body. To this end, they put the patient at the center of their endeavors. They collected detailed case histories, rejected religious explanations, and crafted remedies—mainly diet, exercise, and mixed minerals and herbs—based on their physical understandings of sickness.

Hippocrates himself was an unlikely rebel. His family claimed descent from Asclepius himself. The Oath for which he is famed—although he almost certainly didn't write it—opens by invoking Asclepius, Apollo, and other gods as witnesses. But the gods are decorations. Hippocrates focused on illness's mundane, material causes and on the craft of clinical observation. Diet and drugs, not incantations, he claimed, accounted for the priests' treatment successes. In a clever bit of triangulation (it was risky, then as now, to seem dismissive of faith), he said that those who blamed the gods for disease were guilty of blasphemy. The intellectual leaders of classical Athens, including Plato, also gave lip service to the gods, but they embraced Hippocrates's unmagical analytics of clinical classification and cause.

This inward turn, from the demands of the divine to the needs of the body, had momentous implications for the ethics of medicine. It shrank medicine's moral domain, from the social realm to the life of the individual. Hippocrates's followers proclaimed their devotion to the patient as a person, and they set out to win their patients' trust. To this end, they foreswore sex with patients, emphasized accurate prognosis, and avoided curative promises they couldn't keep. They also introduced privacy to the doctor-patient relationship. Since the gods neither caused nor cured illness, the personal lives of the sick weren't their business. More to the point, what went on between doctors and patients wasn't the business of priests, politicians, or others who wielded power by claiming to know the gods' will.

The Hippocratic Oath affirms these commitments to the patient. It challenges doctors to resist market pressures, social expectations, and the state's demands. Its promise of loyalty to patients is central to its pledgetaker's professional identity. It has endured for 2,000 years because it appeals powerfully to people's yearnings for someone to stand by them when sickness stirs anxiety and fear. The Hippocratic vow of fidelity, moreover, is therapeutic in itself. A growing body of research shows that patients' belief in their doctors' commitment and competence makes treatment more effective.

But part of what sustained the Hippocratic promise of uncompromising commitment to patients for twenty-some centuries was medical technology's inability to accomplish much. Soldiers, police, and public officials were disinclined to turn to doctors for help in protecting (or oppressing) citizens, since their methods had so little to offer. Medicine could predict the course of illnesses but could do almost nothing to treat them. Its failed remedies were often ghoulish—bloodletting, cutting without anesthesia, and toxic mineral brews. And medicine was cheap to the point of economic irrelevance from a policy perspective. All but the poorest could afford its mostly pointless ministrations; thus those in power had little reason to fret about its cost.

Not until the nineteenth century did this start to change. It can fairly be said that the change began on October 16, 1846, in an operating arena overseen by a dentist, John Warren, at the Massachusetts General Hospital. Warren's guest that day, William Morton, asked a patient to inhale ether before a surgical procedure that would otherwise have been pure agony— slicing into the patient's neck to take out a tumor. The operation was painless and a triumph. Within a few months, pioneering surgeons around the world were using ether to put their patients to sleep—and to open a new universe of therapeutic possibility. Six years later, a British doctor gave chloroform to Queen Victoria for the birth of Prince Leopold. Religious fundamentalists were outraged—scripture enjoined women to bring forth in pain—but popular interest was enormous. Anesthesia quickly became commonplace in operating theaters around the world.

The problem of infection remained. Surgeons operated with dirty instruments, in filthy surroundings, wearing unwashed, blood-splattered frocks. But over the next few decades, the profession grudgingly came to grips with this problem, belatedly acknowledging proof of the germ theory of disease. Surgeons began sterilizing their instruments, first with acid, then with heat. They abandoned their filthy frocks in favor of sterile gowns, and they donned gloves and masks and bathed wounds in antiseptics. The results were astonishing. Deaths from such common procedures as amputation and repair of compound fractures dropped from 50 percent or more to low double digits or less. More than that, the revolutions in anesthesia and antisepsis opened the body to the surgeon's blade. Agonizing pain and deadly putrefaction had kept the chest, abdomen, and brain off-limits; now medicine could invade these biological sancta as a matter of routine.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, X-rays, the electrocardiogram, and a host of other innovations had added to medicine's capabilities and costs. No longer could a doctor deliver state- of-the-art care out of a saddlebag, riding from house to house or town to town. Medicine had begun its march from a nineteenth-century cottage endeavor to an industrial-scale enterprise. Locating anesthesia, antisepsis, and other emerging capabilities in a central setting, typically the hospital, made economic sense. The needed rooms, equipment, and other gadgetry required large numbers of patients to cover their costs. But with rising capabilities came rising public expectations—and rising pressure on governments to make medicine's promise available to all. Germany was the first to do so, offering national health insurance to its citizens in 1883, as a salve for the battlefield sacrifices its leaders demanded in wars against most of its neighbors. Other European nations followed, making medicine a public matter as never before. At the turn of the last century, medical care was a percentage point or less of their economic activity, but the stage was set for state involvement in the setting of priorities and the imposition of limits.


Excerpted from The Hippocratic Myth by M. Gregg Bloche. Copyright © 2011 M. Gregg Bloche. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments v

1 Introduction: Hippocrates' Myth 1

2 Cutting Costs and Keeping Faith 17

3 Stakeholders, Wonks, and the Setting of Limits 49

4 Politics, Morals, and Medical Need I: PTSD 61

5 Politics, Morals, and Medical Need II: Mobilizing Shared Resources 81

6 Setting Limits by Consent 97

7 Doctors as Warriors I: America's Frisson with Torture 119

8 Doctors as Warriors II: Ethics and Politics 159

9 Doing Justice? 181

10 Conclusion: Moving beyond the Myth 219

Notes 234

Index 261

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