“Can They Do This?”: Dealing with Moral Distress after Third–Party Termination of the Doctor–Patient Relationship
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“Can They Do This?”
Dealing with Moral Distress after Third–Party Termination of the Doctor–Patient Relationship

Not so long ago, a storm badly damaged the tertiary care hospital in which I practice surgical oncology. In the aftermath of the storm, the institution determined it was no longer able to provide unreimbursed cancer care, and many of my patients were terminated by a form letter from the hospital. The helplessness and outrage that I experienced when I was first handed one of these letters, crumpled from the damp fist of one of my patients, was immense, and frightening in its unfamiliarity: “Can they do this?” I asked repeatedly, ascending a hierarchy of authority, which was increasingly reticent and then elusive. In short, the answer was “yes.”

While this decision was made by the administration, its enactment was delegated to the physicians. Thus, not only were the physicians not involved in the decision to terminate their patients, they shouldered the burden of telling their patients that they would no longer be treated. The reason given—storm devastation—was contradicted by the orderly flow of insured patients in and out of unaffected clinics and hospitals.

In those months, when the operating rooms were closed, I took to the road and learned about hospice and palliative care medicine on the ground. I drove from city to smaller city to the devastated countryside, locating my patients and providing all the care that I could with only my hands and mind and heart. I struggled with the limitations of the health care system and worked to rebuild a sustainable infrastructure at my own institution, all while trying to come to terms with bioethicist Haavi Morreim’s (1995) caution that “. . . it is not the physician who owes the resources at all. He cannot owe what others own and control, because moral obligations can only be assigned to those capable of fulfilling them” (p. 87).

In considering my experience of moral distress over this period of time, I have reflected on the different connotations of the word, “practice.” I grappled with the philosophical terms “practice,” “praxis,” and “phronesis,” and I questioned their relevance to the word, as used in my professional life. However, in struggling to understand my moral obligations after the storm, when I was learning to do what I could, even when I couldn’t do what I felt like I should, I reconsidered. The elements of immersion, repetition, particularity, and utility that pervade this language of philosophers and artists turned out to be what preserved my ability [End Page 109] to practice medicine in a space holding only patient and practitioner.

Many of the patients that I take care of are very poor. Many more are working but uninsured. This is a result of both their risk factors and the demographics and resources in my geographic catchment area. Their access to care was disrupted after a natural disaster and concerted efforts to reestablish it have not succeeded. Since then, I have learned how to tell people that they will die of cancer because they don’t have enough money. This is not a skill I was taught in medical school. I can talk about death, imminent or not, feared or anticipated. I can talk about unresectable tumors, treatments that have more risk than benefit (or no benefit at all), suffering beyond what has yet been experienced or imagined, helplessness, futility and grief. I could be neither surgeon nor oncologist without some facility with these. But I was unprepared for this move from medical to economic “can’t,” the nexus where an institutional “won’t” becomes a personal “can’t.”

I should say here that I was not blind to the expense and technological hype of the American medico–industrial complex or our systematic marginalization of public health or the ever–present cries for health care reform. I understood that I was a steward and that I served both the individual and the society and had at my disposal what I was told were limited resources. These values, however, were only just being incorporated into the training of medical professionals; certainly they played no role in my own education. Morreim’s (1995) conclusion...