A portion of the modern take on the Hippocratic Oath for physicians is as follows: that I will exercise my art solely for the benefit of my patients, the relief of suffering, the prevention of disease and promotion of health. . .”. It seems simple, right? As patients, we believe it is the responsibility of the physician to provide care for patients to the best of their ability. However, where is the line between performing obligations and stepping into harm’s way?
Five months ago, an outbreak of Ebola appeared in Guinea, West Africa. To date, the World Health Organization acknowledges this as the largest recorded outbreak of the disease, with the death toll at nearly 670 and more than 1,000 people infected. Within the past few weeks, doctors in Uganda, Liberia and another in Sierra Leone fell victim to the relentless disease. Two Americans have contracted the disease as they worked with Serving in Mission and Samaritan’s Purse to control the outbreak. Medical teams are now working tirelessly to halt the disease’s progression in these health care providers-turned patients
So at what point would caring for patients be considered “beyond the call of duty?” This was the question addressed by Dr. Daniel K. Sokol, researcher at the Imperial College in London in both a thesis featured at Medical Ethicist online and an August 2006 policy review in the CDC’s Emerging Infectious Diseases Journal.
Written at a time when avian flu was demanding the attention of the medical community, Sokol questioned whether healthcare professionals were obligated to care for patients during virulent epidemics of infectious disease. Sokol states that although a group of infectious disease experts “suggested” that health care professionals’ duty to care does in fact extend to public health emergencies, it must be coupled with a duty on the part of the physician to inform, protect and support any and all support staff. Add to that the idea of health care professionals as “multiple agents” (that a health care provider is a part of more than one group affected by an outbreak, including the community and their family, with obligations and duties related to those titles), and the “duty to care” may not extend as far as one might think.
This recent virulent disease outbreak definitely shines light on the need for greater dialogue between the public, medical professionals, the media, and educational establishments about acceptable limits.