As physicians-in-training, it is tempting to accept that we have no place to stand up to our colleagues or superiors. That we should just hold our tongues, keep our mouths shut, dodging confrontation like the plague. This is false. From the day you received that acceptance letter in the mail, you committed your life to protecting others. What was it uncle Ben said to Peter Parker? “With great power comes great responsibility.” At times, this might mean getting uncomfortable to do the right thing.
Recently in Maryland, anesthesiologist Dr. Tiffany M. Ingham, MD underwent litigation for defamation and malpractice. The patient discovered demeaning insults that were stated by his anesthesiologist during a colonoscopy. In preparing for the procedure, the patient used the record function on his phone so he would not miss any important instructions. The phone remained on record throughout the procedure. What he heard on the way home was disturbing. During the procedure, the physician and other staff members berated the unconscious patient. Because he was nervous about receiving an IV, the physician stated that, “I wanted to punch you in the face and man you up a little bit.” Throughout the recording the patent was called a “retard” and it was joked that he had syphilis and tuberculosis on his genitals. All of this occurred while the patient was under full sedation.
It is unfortunate that this one case has become publicized and will fuel distrust in physicians. But for students and residents, it is a timely reminder that how we behave matters 100 percent of the time.
When we join the care team, we become responsible for that patient. Whether it is protecting their airway or protecting their dignity, we must not allow our opinions to affect obligation. We must also not allow the fear of acquiring enemies prevent us from informing our colleagues that a behavior is inappropriate. Our duties extend beyond just managing medical care of patients and require us to preserve trust. We must give patients the assurance that our sole focus is on them and that we will protect them while they are under our care.
Remember what brought you to medicine in the first place? Sure, we all joke that medical school is full of type-A gunners who never got less than a 95 percent. But the truth is, you were welcomed in because someone saw more than your grades. They saw your integrity and compassion. They saw someone willing to devote their lives to people who were sick and scarred. They believed you had the potential to be a great leader and an example to those around you. Sadly, these are things the physician from Maryland had clearly forgotten.
The way we behave today is indicative of how we will behave tomorrow. Medicine can ill afford us waiting until we are “done with our training” to stand up for what is right. Before you know it, you will be a doctor. And in reality, most patients that you care for today already see you as one. You owe it to them to assure they never experience what that man in Maryland did, at least not while on your watch.
On day one we were given confidence and a stethoscope. Soon after, we donned a brilliant white coat. All of these are symbols of authority and power. So let us be bold for those we care for and embrace the responsibility that comes with it.