The Middle Ages surgeon-barber cut hair, amputated limbs and bled patients. Bleeding was popular; the one sure method of curing maladies that was physically visible. Trained physicians considered themselves superior and above surgery. The profession of barber surgeon eventually evolved to today’s surgeons, the profession I belong to. We carry malpractice insurance because we are liable for our actions and pronouncements to our patients, and know that what we do or say may from time-to-time cause harm. Since we’re sued for redress, we are more careful, always aware that Damocles’ sword hangs over our actions.
The concept of malpractice insurance - or the idea that we are liable for our actions and words – is, for better or worse, in today’s America a given. In my practice of surgery, I saved more lives that I can count. I paid out more than $1.5 million in malpractice insurance. Indeed, pretty much everyone who belongs to a profession and deals with the public acknowledges that things can and will go wrong. Nurses, lawyers, bus drivers, morticians, today’s barbers, you name it, all carry liability insurance. It is the American way.
That is, everyone, except professional politicians. It is incomprehensible that the political class - a profession – doesn’t carry liability insurance despite the great responsibility they carry on their shoulders. Given the tremendous influence politicians’ actions have, the concept of liability insurance deserves serious debate. Members of any group of people with a small number among them who blatantly and consistently tell lies they know are untruths, must acknowledge they all bear some liability for the harm caused by their members’ words and actions.
Most professions earn respect because they admit to the potential liability of their profession. The US Congress continues to rank poorly in many polls - 9% in 2001. I think politicians as a group would easily become more respected if they carried malpractice insurance - it would modulate their behavior as a group.
My point is, too often politicians feel free to flog truth and reason, often knowing full well their inflammatory words will lead to harm being done. They cowardly spew lies hiding behind the long skirts of the 1st Amendment. Since we are stuck with the Amendment we could trim her skirts, to allow us a better look at what hides behind them.
An example for what I mean is: doctors and lawyers who decide to dabble in politics, at the blink of an eye change from liability-sensitive professionals, to irresponsible, lie-spewing loud mouths. Truth and fact are constants and don’t change just because you wear a different suit of clothing. What was a harmful lie as a physician or lawyer shouldn’t change just because your new title is “politician.”
One doesn’t have to look far down the corridor of history to see what is wrong. Today’s America is full of both men and women politicians whose brand is “the lie.” Lies that cause death and injury to the same people they’ve sworn to serve and protect. Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s Wheeling speech on February 9, 1950, “I have here in my hand a list of 205 .... members of the Communist party .... still working and shaping the policy of the State Department,” was a patent falsehood. He wanted to and caused incalculable harm and consequences of his words and actions continue to reverberate to this day. McCarthy suffered no consequences for his words and actions, even though he was a lawyer who should have known better.
Shameful is a number of physicians-turned-politicians (Tom Price, a practicing orthopedic surgeon before he became a Georgia congressman, being a good example) behavior change, as soon as the pre-politics shackles of responsibility are shed. Worse is, as politicians their actions are often against patients’ healthcare.
Politics resembles an arena where one can shoot and kill, expecting no repercussions. Consequences are a strange philosophical construct that’s non-existent in the current political mind.
I imagine the political class representing the Middle Ages barber surgeon, with his sharp razors and leeches. I imagine politics rising to a new profession, like today’s physician-surgeons; professionals with a degree of self-respect. Professional liability can only push the dark-minded among politicians towards more responsibility. That, at any rate, is my dream.
Pius Kamau, M.D., general surgery, is president of the Aurora-based Africa America Higher Education Partnerships; co-founder of the Africa Enterprise Group and president of the Consortium of African Diasporas in the U.S.A. He has been a National Public Radio commentator and a blogger, and is author of “The Doctor’s Date with Death.”