The inhumanity of medicine

BMJ 1994; 309 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.309.6970.1671 (Published 24 December 1994) Cite this as: BMJ 1994;309:1671
  1. D J Weatherall
  1. DJ Weatherall Regius professor of medicine University of Oxford, John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford OX3 9DU

    Time to stop and think

    In the past few months … I have been made aware of a large number of cases of disturbingly callous and rude behaviour by consultants and general practitioners towards patients … might I suggest that courses to remind (or perhaps teach) doctors how to behave to their patients be put high on the agenda.

    This extract from a letter received recently by the editor of the BMJ and the articles in a similar vein (p 1696,1 p 1699,2 p 17003), raise some disturbing questions for us to ponder on over the Christmas season. The excuse that only bad news is newsworthy will not wash; such stories are becoming commonplace and encompass so much of current clinical practice that we seem to be becoming a profession of uncaring technocrats.

    In seeking solutions to these problems it is important to see them in their historical perspective. Are they new? I know of no evidence that doctors of the past were so much better at handling their patients. I still vividly remember one of my first teaching rounds as a medical student, over 30 years ago. We had arrived at the end of the bed of a patient who had been found to have an inoperable lung cancer. The senior and much respected physician who was conducting the round suddenly veered away from the bed and collected together the throng of staff and students in the middle of the ward into what resembled a huddle of American football players planning their next play. The diagnosis and prognosis were discussed in hushed whispers, after which we returned to the bedside, a few banalities were exchanged, and we moved on to the next patient. Such behaviour was common during my student days. And, as so well portrayed on page 1714, for centuries …

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