Am I My Brother's Warden? Responding to the Unethical or Incompetent Colleague

By Morreim, E. Haavi | The Hastings Center Report, May-June 1993 | Go to article overview

Am I My Brother's Warden? Responding to the Unethical or Incompetent Colleague


Morreim, E. Haavi, The Hastings Center Report


Responding to the failings of peers can be difficult, but as professionals physicians should not leave the moral management of errant colleagues to chance. Distinguishing levels of adverse outcomes helps physicians more clearly assess each others' conduct and respond appropriately to those who threaten the integrity of profession.

A physician should expose, without fear or favor, incompetent or corrupt, dishonest or unethical conduct on the part of members of the profession."[1] It is a commandment easier issued than followed. Although a rising interest in quality assessment has led to increased disciplinary actions by state boards and to treatment programs for impaired physicians,[2] strong social norms reject spying and "snitching" on colleagues in favor of respecting professional privacy and individual responsibility.

Professional self-policing is particularly challenging with respect to physicians who are incompetent or unethical, as distinct from impaired. An impaired physician is unable to practice medicine with reasonable skill and safety by reason of physical or mental illness. He or she may be hindered by waning eyesight, dementia, or substance abuse. The incompetent physician, on the other hand, is not ill, but ignorant or unskillful, while the unethical physician knowingly and willingly violates fundamental norms of conduct toward others, especially his or her own patients.

Impairment commonly elicits sympathy and a wish to help. Even a drastic intervention, such as to remove an aging surgeon from the operating room, can be done with charity toward the physician. And in the process one may help that physician. Many states have confidential programs to treat substance abusers and return them to practice, benefiting both them and their patients.[3] In contrast, one feels less charitable toward the incompetent, and not at all benevolent toward the unethical physician.

Furthermore, the standards by which we define impairment are considerably clearer than those by which we identify incompetence or poor ethics. Though there are borderline cases, usually we know what it is to be going blind or to be an adict. In contrast, it is not always clear what constitutes "standard" medical knowledge and skill. Practice parameters can suggest routine management of common problems, but cannot define competent care. Patients and their illnesses vary widely, and it can be difficult to distinguish between poor management of an ordinary situation and good management of an unusually complex situation.[4]

Ethical standards are at least as difficult. Some things, of course, are clear. It is plainly wrong to demand sexual intercourse from a fourteen-year-old girl while holding a gun to her head,[5] or to trade forty-four prescription pain pills for a pair of machine guns.[6] But elsewhere standards are not so clear. We may never agree whether euthanasia or even assisted suicide is morally acceptable.

If identifying standards is particularly difficult in the case of competence and ethics, the same is true for gathering evidence. On the one hand, indications of impairment can be relatively straightforward. Blood tests can reveal alcohol, and medical evaluation can diagnose dementia. In contrast, incompetence is seldom easy to detect, partly because the competence of care depends on the clinical context. the patient may have looked very different when he first presented to his primary care physician, for example, than he did hours later for a consulting physician. Furthermore, imcompetence typically requires not just one error, even a serious one, but a pattern of them. Not often does any one colleague have the opportunity to observe such a pattern. Unethical conduct is commonly even more difficult to detect, as a devious doctor takes great care to conceal his misdeeds.

Although we must distinguish impaired, incompetent, and unethical physicians, these categories can of course overlap. …

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