There are limits to what a careful doctor can do

4 minute read

Is the guiding principal of the medical profession, “first, do no harm,” hopelessly out-of-date?


Is the guiding principle of the medical profession, “first, do no harm,” hopelessly out-of-date, asks James C. Salwitz.

Clearly, a physician should understand her limits, and never should she give care, which hurts, more than helps. Nonetheless, this axiom implies that the doctor is in control, and decides the treatment. Some of the time, a modern motto, which recognises the true position and limits of the modern doc, might be, “you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink.”

I saw two patients this week, whose disparate responses to serious medical events, illustrates the limits of what even a careful and clear physician to do. Both were led to the side of the river, told how to get safely cross. One climbed onto the ferry. The other looked left, looked right and plunged into the maelstrom, rapidly beginning to drown.

Steve is a 61-year-old gentleman. On a blood test last winter, I found that his hemoglobin A1C (HgA1C) was slightly elevated. Normal is 5.6 or less, and his was 5.7. This test measures the average blood sugar over time, and the very slight increase did not mean he has diabetes, but rather was at increased risk for that illness. I informed him of this, six months ago.

Since that time, he has done everything possible to reduce that risk. He began to exercise for an hour, five or six times a week. He lost 7 kilos. He stopped eating all sweets, dessert and soft drinks. He got more rest. The result is that his HgA1c dropped to 5.2. Steve took aggressive control of his health and life.

The second patient, Ron, is a 52-year-old gentleman. I saw him a year ago, for an elevation of his red blood count, so-called reactive rolycythemia. To what was it reacting? Smoking and sleep apnoea from obesity. Also, he was developing a chronic cough from early lung disease and, a couple of months ago, required the placement of his second cardiac stent.

I told Ron, last year, that he was dying. He was dying of smoking. He was dying of overeating. He was dying from a sedentary lifestyle. His chance of surviving to 60 was not great without significant changes in how he was living. I offered him nicotine patches and gum, anti-smoking medication, a nutritional referral, a prescription to a medical exercise program, referral to a hypnotist and the number of a formal smoke ending program at the local university. I counselled him on methods of decreasing his intake of food and cigarettes. I was emphatic, crystal clear, that his was puffing his last years away.

How much did he decrease his smoking? Nada. His is still burning through more than one pack a day. His nails are yellow, and he smells of tobacco. He is proceeding to kill himself.

His weight? Up three kilos. Exercise of any sort? Not at all.   Ron did nothing improve his health or lifestyle.

 What makes these patients so different? Sure, tobacco is addictive and therefore naturally harder to quit. However, massive lifestyle changes, which Steve put in place, also require tremendous focus and discipline. I have seen the reverse just as often, overweight diabetics completely failing to address rapidly rising sugars, while smokers quit, simply because I say things are bad, or maybe even more important, will be bad for their children.

There are many factors that result in such a contrast is health consciousness. Some people feel helpless or fatalistic, unable to take control of their own lives. Others are overwhelmed by personal events and do not have the time or focus for themselves. Many were not raised in health-conscious homes or never had the supports to focus on their own bodies. Some do not believe what they are being told, while others, because of depression or anxiety, simply cannot care. Others never are never told about their choices in a definite and clear manner, which they can understand.

For doctors this can be very frustrating, even resulting in burnout. They try to teach, support and give honest guidance, when they wish all along they could take the patient out back to the woodshed and spank some sense into them. The best a doctor can offer is an honest appraisal of realities and in choices for each malady. Then it is up to each patient, each of us, to choose our path. We decide whether to drink the water or not.

 James C. Salwitz is an oncologist who blogs at Sunrise Rounds

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