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Professionalism, or Prying?

3 Jan, 17 | by Iain Brassington

“Professionalism” is a funny thing.  About this time last year, I was struggling to get a new course written for the coming semester; it was on professional ethics for lawyers.  A colleague made a comment along the lines that I must be spending a lot of time looking at the professional codes; I replied that I’d be spending almost none doing that; she looked baffled and wandered off, presumably convinced that I was joking.

I wasn’t joking.  I did look a little at the professional codes, but only as a jumping-off point.  My schtick was more like, “Here’s what the SRA says about client confidentiality; now let’s spend the remaining 98% of this lecture looking at why it might say that, and whether it ought to say something different”.

Yet, as I wrote the lectures, professionalism – not professional codes, but professionalism – did keep cropping up.  After all, if you’re going to talk about lawyers’ ethics, or doctors’ ethics, or engineers’ ethics, the implication has to be that there’s something quite specific that applies to each of those professions, otherwise it just collapses into… well, ethics; and it might be that there is a clear way to define who belongs to the profession, and a clear hierarchy, and that it is proper (or, at least, it may be proper) that there is some sort of pressure exerted by that hierarchy that shapes behaviour in a way that neither the law nor standard social norms do.  There are some things that are regulated by professional ethics that aren’t regulated by bog-standard ethics.  To return to the lawyers’ example, there might be certain things that are acceptable or even required from a lawyer that wouldn’t be in other cases, and other things that are unacceptable that are trivial outside the profession; and the same might apply to medics.  (In passing, I think that that might be one of the fault lines in academic medical ethics: those of us that come from a philosophical background understand “ethics” to mean one thing, and those of us who come from a medical or, in at least some cases, a social science background understand it to mean another.  We normally rub along fine, but sometimes we are talking at cross-purposes.)

A range of problems arises from that, though.  For example, though codes of ethics might attempt to codify what it is that’s demanded by professionals, they’re often rather vague, or presuppose a heck of a lot that’s actually rather important.  That can lead to situations in which it’s impossible to tell what’s required on the ground.  “Maintaining the reputation of the profession” is a concern of some of the professional codes I’ve seen, though quite what that means is anyone’s guess, since it might collapse to “doing whatever keeps the public on side, no matter how senseless”; and while that might maintain esteem in one sense, it does so only by undermining the concept of professional integrity.

A second problem comes from the need to know what things are properly within the “professional” remit, and what professional bodies have any business talking about.  The difficulty here is that “professionalism” implies living a kind of life; being a professional involves being a certain kind of person.  One doesn’t stop being a professional when the end-of-shift klaxon goes.  And yet there’re certain things that do have nothing to do with professional regulation: whether or not to be teetotal is not a professional matter, and a professional body that tried to involve itself in such decisions would be stepping over the line.  Still, where the line should be drawn may not be obvious.

All of this brings me to this blog post over on the BMJ blog, in which Niro Kumar considers doctors and dating apps. more…

Natal Nativism

12 Oct, 16 | by Iain Brassington

Scene: the boardroom of a large NHS Trust, somewhere in England.

“And so that brings us neatly to the last item on the agenda: passport checks for pregnant women who want a checkup.  The thing is, you see, that it turns out that we’ve been providing obstetric care to some women who aren’t actually UK citizens.  And, clearly, that has to stop.”
“To stop?”
“Well, maybe not stop.  But you know what I mean.  We can’t go providing treatment to anyone who comes knocking at the door!  Why, we’d have a queue from here to Timbuktu, not to mention the cost!”
“Oh, quite.  No, I quite agree that we can’t be the world’s supplier of healthcare.”
“No.  So that’s settled, then.  No more obstetric services to women who can’t demonstrate their eligibility.”
“You don’t look convinced.  What’s the problem?  These women aren’t eligible.”
“Well, no.  But… well, look.  Remember when Dr Smith retired, and when Dr Jones got that transfer to work in the Inner Hebrides?”
“All too well.  Two great losses to the Trust.  What’s your point?”
“Well, I seem to remember that we pooled together to buy them nice leaving presents.”
“We did.  It was the least we could do.”
“I agree.  But, you see, the thing is, they weren’t actually entitled to them.  If you see what I mean.”
“I’m not sure I follow.”
“No.  Well, you see, the thing is, we bought them those presents, and gave them to them, because it’s the decent thing to do.  There’s no rule that says that we have to buy them.  They wouldn’t have been wronged if we hadn’t.”
“Yeeeeeeessssss…  I mean, no.  But yes.”
“But we gave them the presents anyway.  Because the rules set out what’s minimially decent.  Not an upper limit.”
“Well, you see, I was just wondering: might the same apply in other contexts?  Allowing for the obvious differences, of course.”
“You’re losing me again.”
“I thought I might be.  Well, you see, it’s like this.  We’ve been providing treatment to pregnant women without paying attention to whether they’re entitled by the strict letter of the law.  And that law specifies who is entitled to treatment.  But that doesn’t necessarily impose any exclusions.  You see, I wonder if by getting bogged down in the rules, we might… um…”
“Might what?”
“Well, you see, the thing is…”
“Go on…”
“Look: we might end up looking like utter shits.”

Wholly fictional, this, of course.  No such conversation took place.  On the other hand, as reported by the Beeb, here’s a document from St George’s University NHS Trust.  Skip to p80: more…

No Diagnosis for You, Matey!

5 Aug, 16 | by Iain Brassington

Here’s a little amusement for the weekend, from a friend who lives in the States:

I received a state of the arts cardio monitor, per a prescription from a cardiologist, to determine if I have an irregular heart beat.  All chrome and aluminium and clean and small with various electronic devices to transmit “information” to the company.  40 pages of instructions for the phone-like device.  At one point the book (and the device) instruct me (i.e., tell me, not ask me) to push YES regarding company’s use of my information for research.  I push NO.

Device will not allow diagnostic testing.

Call doctor.

Doctor upset I won’t allow use of info.

I didn’t care UNTIL they told me I can’t use this device UNLESS I consent to use of the information for research.  Now they are scrambling to ‘override’ the yes-only option, if possible.

I have to admit that, from a professional point of view, that’s kind of brilliant.  And I suppose that it is consent, in a Hobson’s choice kind of a way.

Writers Whose Expertise is Deplorably Low

4 Jun, 16 | by Iain Brassington

Something popped up on my twitter feed the other day: this document from Oxford’s philosophy department.  (I’m not sure quite what it is.  Brochure?  In-house magazine?  Dunno.  It doesn’t really matter, though.)  In it, there’s a striking passage from Jeff McMahan’s piece on practical ethics:

Even though what is variously referred to as ‘practical ethics’ or ‘applied ethics’ is now universally recognized as a legitimate area of philosophy, it is still regarded by some philosophers as a ghetto within the broader 
area of moral philosophy.  This view is in one way warranted, as there is much work in such sub-domains of practical ethics as bioethics and business ethics that is done by writers whose expertise is in medicine, health policy, business, or some area other than moral philosophy, and whose standards of rigour in moral argument
are deplorably low.  These writers also tend
 to have only a superficial understanding of normative ethics.  Yet reasoning in practical ethics cannot be competently done without sustained engagement with theoretical issues
in normative ethics.  Indeed, Derek Parfit believes that normative and practical ethics are so closely interconnected that it is potentially misleading even to distinguish between them.  In his view, the only significant distinction is between ethics and metaethics, and even that distinction is not sharp.  [emphasis mine]

It’s a common complaint among medical ethicists who come from a philosophical background that non-philosophers are (a) not as good at philosophy, (b) doing medical ethics wrong, (c) taking over.  All right: there’s an element of hyperbole in my description of that complaint, but the general picture is probably recognisable.  And I don’t doubt that there’ll be philosophers grumbling along those lines at the IAB in Edinburgh in a couple of weeks.  There’s a good chance that I’ll be among them.

There’s a lot going on in McMahan’s piece, and his basic claim is, I suppose, open to a claim that, being a philosopher, he would say that, wouldn’t he?  But even if that claim is warranted, it doesn’t follow that it’s false.  And it probably isn’t false.  There is some very low-quality argument throughout bioethics (and, from what I remember from my time teaching it, business ethics) – more particularly, in the medical ethics branch of bioethics, and more particularly still, in the clinical ethics sub-branch.  Obviously, I’m not going to pick out any examples here, but many of us could point to papers that have been simply not very good, because the standard of philosophy was low, without too much difficulty.  Often, these are papers we’ve peer-reviewed, and that haven’t seen the light of day.  But sometimes they do get published, and sometimes they get given at conferences.  I’ve known people who make a point of trying to find the worst papers on offer at a given conference, just for the devilry.

It doesn’t take too much work to come up with the common problems: a tendency to leap to normative conclusions based on the findings of surveys, or empirical or sociological work; value-laden language allowing conclusions to be smuggled into the premises of arguments; appeals to vague and – at best – contentious terms like dignity or professionalism; appeals to nostrums about informed consent; cultural difference used as an ill-fitting mask for special pleading; moral theories being chosen according to whether they generate the desired conclusion; and so on.  Within our field, my guess is that appeals to professional or legal guidelines as the solutions to moral problems is a common fallacy.  Not so long ago, Julian noted that

[t]he moralists appear to be winning.  They slavishly appeal to codes, such as the Declaration of Helsinki.  Such documents are useful and represent the distillation of the views of reasonable people.  Still, they do not represent the final word and in many cases are philosophically naïve.

Bluntly: yes, the WMA or the BMA or the law or whatever might say that you ought to do x; and that gives a reason to to x inasmuch as that one has a reason to obey the law and so on.  But it’s unlikely that it’s a sufficient reason; it remains open to us always to ask what those institutions should say.  Suppose they changed their minds and insisted tomorrow that we should do the opposite of x: would we just shrug and get on with the business of undoing what we did today?

And yet…  The complaint about poor argument is not straightforward, for a couple of reasons. more…

Posted without Comment…

6 Apr, 16 | by Iain Brassington

… except to say that (a) if I could have my time again, I’d retrain as a medic and go to work in one of the developed world’s most dysfunctional healthcare systems:


(click for bigger)

and (b) I’d be grateful that I’m not a woman:


(click for bigger)


Thumbs Up for Privacy

30 Mar, 16 | by Iain Brassington

“Hey, Iain,” says Fran, a Manchester alumna, “What do you make of this?”  I won’t bother rehearsing the whole scenario described in the post, but the dilemma it describes – set out by one Simon Carley – is fairly easily summarised: you work in A&E; a patient is rolled in who’s unconscious; there’s no ID, no medic alert bracelet – in short, nothing to show who the patient is or what their medical history is; but the patient does have an iPhone that uses thumbprints as a security feature.  And it might be that there’s important information that’d be accessible by using the unconscious patient’s thumb to get at it – even if it’s only a family member who might be able to shed some light on the patient’s medical history.

It’s a potentially life-or-death call.  Would it be permissible to hold the phone to the patient’s thumb?

For those who think that privacy is a side-constraint – that is, a moral consideration that should not be violated – the answer will be obvious, and they’ll probably stop reading around about… NOW.  After all, if you’re committed to that kind of view, it’s entirely possible that the question itself won’t make a great deal of sense (tantamount to “Is it OK to do this thing that is plainly not OK?”), or at least not be worth asking.  But I don’t think that privacy is a side-constraint; I’m increasingly of the opinion that privacy is a bit of an iffy concept across the board, for reasons that needn’t detain us here, but that might be implied by at least some of what follows.  In short, I think that privacy is worth taking seriously as a consideration, but it’s almost certainly not trumps.  At the very least, that’s how I shall handle it here.  (Note here that the problem is one of privacy, not – as the OP has it – confidentiality; it’s a question about how to get information, rather than one of what you can do with information volunteered.  A minor quibble, perhaps, but one worth making.)  Even if I’m wrong about privacy in general, the question still seems to be worth asking, if only to confirm that and why it should not be violated. more…

Mature Content?

27 Feb, 16 | by Iain Brassington

There’s an aisle at the supermarket that has a sign above it that reads “ADULT CEREALS”.  Every time I see it, I snigger inwardly at the thought of sexually explicit cornflakes.  (Pornflakes.  You’re welcome.)  It’s not big, and it’s not clever: I know that.  But all these years living in south Manchester have taught me to grab whatever slivers of humour one can from life.

Anyway…  A friend’s FB feed this morning pointed me in the direction of this: a page on Boredpanda showing some of the best entries to the 2016 Birth Photography competition.  (Yeah: I know.  I had no idea, either.)

I guess that birth photography is a bit of a niche field.  The one that won “Best in Category: Labour” is, for my money, a brilliant picture.  Some of the compositions are astonishingly good – but then, come to think of it, childbirth isn’t exactly a surprise, so I suppose that if you’re going to invite someone to photograph it, they’re going to have plenty of time to make sure that the lighting is right.

A second thought that the pictures raise is this: no matter how much people bang on about the miracle of birth… well, nope.  Look at the labour picture again.  I can’t begin to express how glad I am that that’s never going to happen to me; and I’m even more convinced than I was that I don’t want to play any part in inflicting that on another person.

But my overriding response is something in the realm of astonishment that some of the pictures are blanked out as having “mature content”.

I mean… really? more…

Stay Classy, BMJ.

14 Feb, 16 | by Iain Brassington

Lord only knows, it pains me to jump to George Osborne’s defence – more so by resurrecting a meme that was already past it when I was first invited to run this blog in 2008 – but on this one occasion, I’m going to have to do it.

Last week, the BMJ reported about a case in which a psychiatrist was struck off the medical register for having entered into a sexual relationship with a vulnerable client.  That’s dodgy enough in its own right; but he also asked her at the beginning of the affair to promise not to report him to the GMC.  That shifts the whole case from being only (!) deeply dodgy to downright despicable – in effect, he’s admitted in that that there is cause to report him for his behaviour, but then gone ahead with that behaviour anyway.  The vulnerability of the woman with whom he was having the affair adds extra piquancy to the whole sorry tale.

I don’t think that there can be any objection to this sort of thing being reported, though it doesn’t get reported often.  I don’t know how often the GMC hears this kind of case, or whether every hearing attracts coverage.  Maybe cases like this get reported whenever they happen, but that they don’t happen all that often.  Or maybe they’re not infrequent, but the GMC has the consistent bad luck only to hand down its verdicts on days when there are bigger news stories to eclipse them.

Or maybe – and I have a suspicion that this is so – it’s the kind of case that is much more likely to get reported when the perpetrator happens to be the brother of the Chancellor of the Exchequer.  Call me a cynic, but that seems… tolerably likely.

Exhibit A on the evidence table: the opening sentence of the story in the BMJ.

Adam Osborne, the psychiatrist brother of the United Kingdom’s chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, has been struck off the UK medical register for “blatant disregard of the fundamental tenets of the medical profession.”

Quite what George has to do with the story, and why the link to him is worth drawing is beyond me.

Ha!  Just kidding.  It’s not beyond me at all.  It’s almost entirely to do with making the story enticing.  Adam’s behaviour is no better or worse by dint of his family connections; they do nothing except to add a detail to something that would otherwise be merely sordid.  And if you can offer a whiff of guilt-by-association by drawing a link between a creepy doctor and a prominent member of a government currently deeply unpopular among medics… well, so much the better, eh?

Now, the BMJ is not the only organisation to make this move: Adam Osborne has been in trouble before, and the BBC, for example, has never been reluctant to point out the family link.  Here’s the thing, though: I don’t think that the Beeb should be doing it either.  For sure, the BBC is at the very least a general-interest news provider, whereas the BMJ could, I think, be expected to concentrate on medicine and medics; yet even that partial mitigation of the BBC is so dismally weak that the only reason to articulate it is to provide a space to air doubts about whether it should have been articulated.

The BBC shouldn’t be doing it; no news organisation should be doing it; the BMJ shouldn’t be doing it.

The same principle applies to other people with embarrassing siblings, of course.  Yes, we know that climate-change “sceptic” Piers Corbyn is Jeremy’s brother.  Unless Jeremy’s policies on CO2 emissions are influenced by Piers, though, that’s neither here nor there; and in the event that Piers does something even dafter than predicting that another ice-age will begin in the middle of next week, there’d almost certainly be no justification for roping in his Jeremy.  The same rules apply.  But since that’s not a medical matter, I’m not going to moan about it here.

I just want to make it clear that I’m not holding a torch for George on this.  I may disagree with him about any number of things, but the conduct of his brother is one thing for which we shouldn’t throw brickbats at him.  Leave George alone.


24 Dec, 15 | by Iain Brassington

Here’s an intriguing letter from one John Doherty, published in the BMJ yesterday:

Medical titles may well reinforce a clinical hierarchy and inculcate deference in Florida, as Kennedy writes, but such constructs are culture bound.

When I worked in outback Australia the patients called me “Mate,” which is what I called them.

They still wanted me to be in charge.

Intriguing enough for me to go and have a look at what this Kennedy person had written.  It’s available here, and the headline goes like this:

The Title “Doctor” in an Anachronism that Disrespects Patients

Oooooo-kay.  A strong claim, and my hackles are immediately raised by the use of “disrespect” as a verb – or as a word at all.  (Don’t ask me why I detest that so; I don’t know.  It’s just one of those things that I will never be able to tolerate, a bit like quiche.)  But let’s see…  It’s not a long piece, but even so, I’ll settle for the edited highlights: more…

Pro-Lifers’ Arguments Might be their Greatest Gift to Pro-Choicers

19 Dec, 15 | by Iain Brassington

Abortion is always going to be a controversial topic.  For what it’s worth, I hold that there’s nothing wrong with it.  That’s me speaking from my habitual non-consequentialist position.  From a more utilitarian perspective, I’m willing to concede that, given the choice between world A, in which abortions happen, and world B, in which they don’t because noone gets pregnant without wanting it, and everyone is perfectly happy to continue with her pregnancy, A is worse.  But A is nevertheless a whole lot less bad than world C, in which women are compelled to continue with pregnancies they don’t want.  In other words, there’s no need or desire for abortion in super-happy-fluffy world, and super-happy-fluffy world is better than the real world – but we live in the real world, and having abortions available makes the real world better than it could be.

I’d like to think that I’m doughty enough to have my mind changed on this, though.  Should someone have a really good argument for the wrongness of abortion, or the overwhelming badness, I’d like to think that I could be persuaded – that I’d let the argument go wherever it takes me.  I think that that’s just intellectual honesty.  It’s just that I have yet to come across an argument that I find persuasive, and I don’t even know what such an argument would look like.

What I can say is that, while I find even the best pro-life arguments unpersuasive, some are worse than others, though.  There’s a guy who keeps posting to the Bioethics Facebook group with links to lamentably bad arguments.  And, of course, there’s the CMF.

On their blog, Philippa Taylor has been getting herself into a tizzy about the recent ruling that Northern Ireland’s very restrictive laws contravene human rights legislation, and suggests that there is a whole range of reasons why the law should not be changed there.

Let’s have a look… more…

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