Doctors: An Endangered Species?


The delta smelt is on the “endangered species list.” A federal court, the EPA, and Congress have turned off the water pumps on the Sacramento River to protect this tiny California fish. The consequence? A devastating manmade drought. Fields, groves, and orchards are brown and dying in the breadbasket of America. The farmers believe that they, too, are an “endangered species.”

There is another group of people who are endangered: doctors. I spent a weekend with the wonderful members of the Christian Medical and Dental Associations. The more I listened, the more I wondered, “ will they be here a generation from now?” Doctors, and other healthcare professionals, are being crippled by a different kind of interference, and many are creating exit strategies.

Let me share what one doctor wrote. Dr. Jay Paul Fink says,

“Doctors are under attack. Their income has been continually eroded by managed care companies, intense competition, the purchase of practices, as well as the government’s attempts to control health care costs. . . . Their confidence has been eroded by the commodification of health care in which the responsibility for the patient’s care has been divided among a number of caretakers, case managers, and family members who believe, rightly or wrongly, that their input has the same value as the clinical opinion of the physician. The common belief that physicians are only out for the money and are fraudulent and unscrupulous until proven otherwise is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy because the doctor says to himself, "Why bother?" or "Why not?—no one believes me anyway."[1]

That was written more than a decade ago. The situation has not improved.

Rather than spending time caring for and with their patients, doctors fill as much as one-third of their day with paperwork imposed by the government and insurance companies. One doctor lamented that every Medicaid patient he sees costs him money. Another told me that his patients come in demanding specific drugs, not his professional advice.

Even though the doctors I met are discouraged, they have not lost hope. In the midst of their own flawed humanity, they have chosen a noble pursuit. They remember why they entered the profession: to competently and compassionately care for the sick. They embody the wealth of the Hippocratic tradition. These doctors live out a covenant of trust between themselves, God and their patients. Often stretched to their physical and emotional limits, they continue to care for the unhealthy, the unlovely and, increasingly, the ungrateful.

As Christians, we can thank God for calling these physicians into a profession of care for others. They are resisting a different kind of drought. So, the next time you’re in your doctor’s office, remember that they might be thinking they’re an “endangered species.” Please be sure to thank them.

[1] Paul Jay Fink, “What Happened to the Profession?” Physician’s News Digest, April 1997


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