My Testimony on SB303 (Conscience, Rights, Medical Judgment and Law)
Note: I’ve heard that there’s a new Committee Substitute that will soon be introduced that is more explicit on DNR’s, especially on informed consent and on competent patients.
If laws demand that physicians perform acts against their consciences, you will end up with only doctors without consciences willing to perform the acts in question.
After a few more words about the meeting of the 83rd Texas Legislature Public Health Committee, I’ll post my written testimony that I turned in to the Committee. You can watch the video of the meeting, here. My testimony begins about 4:59/8:20.
I spoke just before midnight, after many others had covered the good (or bad, depending on their opinions) reforms in SB 303, so I didn’t really go in to those when I talked. Instead, I explained how I handled the few times I’ve had to write DNR’s without consent from the patient or a surrogate.
I also talked about the medical judgment of physicians, about the definition of the “right to life” as a negative right. This means that I can be prohibited from killing, but not that I can be forced to indefinitely act against my conscience and medical judgment. It’s a tough concept, meaning no one can claim that their right to life means that they can take my food and shelter, my labors or my liberty to keep them alive.
Then, I explained that yes, doctors have a special relationship, a covenant or, at least, a professional relationship due to our privilege of practicing medicine. But the duties aren’t unlimited and they are not all one way. The 10 days plus 21 days in the version of SB303 that we were discussing that night should be a sufficient time trial or test of time for the patient and the doctor’s decisions about the medical treatment, including DNR’s, that the family demands.
The explanation about the nature of medical judgment that I gave is in the written testimony:
May 13, 2013
Chair Kolkhorst and members,
The Texas Advance Directive Act of 1999, created a procedure for resolving disagreements between doctors and their patients or surrogates about which interventions are medically appropriate. The experiences of patients and doctors during the few times that procedure has been invoked over the years, revealed some problems.
The reforms in SB 303 improve the Advance Directive Act by:
- Giving patients and their surrogates much more time and assistance than current law provides in order to prepare for the ethics committee meeting and, if necessary, to find a new doctor willing to accept responsibility for the care of the patient,
- Clarifying the succession of surrogates under state law,
- Protecting the patient’s access to artificially administered hydration and nutrition,
- Restating Texas’s belief that patients should be treated equally regardless of age, disability or ability to pay,
- Adding a whole new section regulating the implementation of Do Not Attempt Resuscitation orders, which our State law hasn’t addressed at all in the past, and
- By protecting the conscience rights of doctors from undue threat of civil, criminal and regulatory liability.
After all, while the hospital provides structure in the form of policies and the medical committee provides oversight about ethics and standard of care, it’s doctors like me, not hospitals or committees, who practice medicine using our medical education and experience guided by conscience, or medical judgment. Medical judgment, not lawyers and paperwork at the bedside, is what enables me to predict the effectiveness of interventions before I order them.
Like all but a handful of Texas doctors, I’ve never had to ask for a medical ethics committee review, but I have had to ask another doctor to co-sign a DNR when I couldn’t find a legal surrogate. As a family doctor, I’ve found that algorithms and “cookbook medicine” or lines of succession for absent family members sometimes aren’t enough when a patient’s physical condition is deteriorating quickly or even when disease runs its expected course, causing organ system after organ system to fail.
Ethics and laws generally lag behind medical advances. Once upon a time, people who couldn’t breathe for themselves were considered to have died a “natural death,” but we keep changing the rules about what we expect human bodies and the “art” of medicine to do. Please support the necessary and important reforms in SB 303.
Thank you for your time and attention,
Beverly B. Nuckols, MD, FAAFP, MA (Bioethics)
For more articles by Beverly Nuckols, check out WingRight.org.