23 June, 2012

What My Mother's Pharmacist Told Me About Why Doctors Would Rather Extend Suffering Than Prevent It

The pharmacist who filled most of my mom's prescriptions was surprised to learn that my mother was asking all her doctors for physician assisted suicide.

I asked him why, in his opinion, physician assisted suicide has gained greater acceptance in Europe than it has here. This is when I found out that my mom's pharmacist is an evangelical Christian.

"I think many US doctors are trying to keep their patients alive longer to give give those patients a chance to accept Jesus as their personal savior" said the pharmacist.

"I've yet to see doctors prowling the halls of the hospice house and the nursing homes, Bibles tucked under their arms, trying to get dying patients to say the sinner's prayer" I said. "No, I don't think religious doctors oppose physician assisted suicide out of evangelistic fervor."

"Well" said the evangelical pharmacist "there's also the Hippocratic Oath. Most doctors interpret the phrase "do no harm" to mean that they can't help a patient kill himself."

"But doctors in other nations also swear the Hippocratic Oath and yet they don't seem to interpret the directive to do no harm that way. Why do you think that is" I asked.

The pharmacist said US doctors are more religious than doctors in, say, Europe.

"Well, that may be, I said "but if it is, why do you suppose it's the religious doctors who insist on dong the harm of extending suffering while it is the irreligious doctors who see suffering, not death, as the harm that physicians should prevent?"

The pharmacist said he didn't know. I said I didn't, either.

"Maybe doctors in the US don't want to 'play God'" said the pharmacist.

"Tell me something" I said: "Why is it not 'playing God' when we artificially extend the life of a person through all manner of expensive 'heroic measures' but it's not  'playing God' when we simply accede to the inevitable and seek to relieve the suffering of a person who doesn't want to live any longer? Imagine a person who is in a terrible car wreck. He awakes to find that limbs have been amputated and he is wearing an ostomy pouch and he will be paralyzed for the rest of his miserable life. The doctors who saved his life never asked if they were 'playing God' by saving somebody who may have preferred to die rather than go on living in this awful condition."

My mom's pharmacist didn't mention the role of money and the fact that doctors make more money extending life than they can make preventing suffering. 

And he didn't mention that 80% US healthcare dollars are spent extending life by 6 months.

I hope that when I'm old and sick doctors will see needless suffering as a greater harm than the facilitation of a comfortable and dignified  death.
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