Recently, news broke about a disturbing act of medical battery carried out by doctors at St. Joe’s Medical Center in Syracuse, New York. The case began when police officers conducted a pretext stop and elected to harass their victim about a small amount of marijuana.
As the situation escalated, the cops took the man to St. Joe’s Medical Center for him to be searched for more drugs. After initial resistance, the cops obtained a search warrant demanding that doctors conduct a sigmoidoscopy to search the victim’s rectum for cocaine. Spoiler alert: They didn’t find anything.
I’m not a legal expert and I won’t speak to the legal status of what happened. But as a physician, I’m appalled that a physician would assault their patient simply because a court gave some rogue cops a warrant.
While police are accustomed to committing acts of assault against unarmed minorities, as physicians, we should hold ourselves to a higher ethical standard.
Informed consent is central to our ethical code. We are not agents of the police, nor agents of the courts. We act to heal the sick, not violate unconsenting prisoners.
I would never conduct a medical procedure on a patient against their will because my personal and professional integrity means something to me. The physician who completed the procedure, however, saw things differently. In his note, he writes, “It’s a valid warrant, and we are obligated to help the police under any means to retrieve the object.”
Obligated? In what way?
The hospital could fire you, I guess. But do you want to work for a hospital that requires its employees to commit medical battery on behalf of brutal and corrupt police?
You could possibly be charged with contempt of court, perhaps even be jailed. But I’d rather do jail time for contempt of court than violate my professional ethics and the rights of my patients. That’s called having a conscience and taking seriously one’s ethical responsibilities.
While the search warrant may protect this doctor from criminal charges, from an ethical standpoint he has clearly committed an act of medical assault, for which there is no excuse.
Search warrants obtained by abusive police are no excuse for violating one of the most important principles of medical ethics: informed consent. When a decisional patient says no, it means no.
It doesn’t matter what your hospital’s lawyer, a group of cops or a careless judge have to say. As doctors, we know what constitutes ethical and unethical behavior, and it is up to us to do the right thing, even under pressure.
Other health care workers have nobly stood up to abusive police in defense of their patients. Take the example of Nurse Alex Wubbels, who got a $500K settlement after she was arrested for refusing to draw blood from an unconscious patient on the behest of an abusive cop. Admittedly, there was no warrant in her case, but the ethical principles are the same.
Physicians are not the only ones to face legal pressure to commit unethical acts. In the United States, journalists are routinely jailed when courts order them to reveal confidential sources, and they refuse. They refuse because they believe very strongly in their integrity as journalists and would rather suffer in a jail cell than behave unethically.
When reporters do a better job of sticking by their ethical principles than doctors, we have a major problem.
Kyle Varner is an internal medicine physician who blogs at his self-titled site, Dr Varner, He can be reached on Twitter @Doctor_Varner.
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