Then Peter said, ‘Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.’
Last week, I took a seminar on medical ethics, held at Princeton through the Witherspoon Institute. The seminar explored many different topics, but ultimately converged on a central theme: physicians must know what medicine is for.
Medical imperialism is real. New technologies and advancements have given us the tools to achieve outcomes that were unimaginable before (think IVF, cosmetic surgeries, transplants, etc). In light of these technologies, the role of the physician has fundamentally changed. Physicians are now expected to take on the roles of reproductive counselors, beauticians, behavioral modifiers, and scores of others that have varying degrees of relevance to medicine, traditionally defined. We are watching, quite spectacularly, a new Manifest Destiny unfold.
So here’s the million dollar question: is this a good thing? Should we increase in medical powers as harbingers of a brighter future? Or do we have reasons to resist a redefining of medicine?
It is important to raise the question of definitions, and relatedly, the question of limits, because merely accepting the new possibilities would inevitably lead to a sort of consumerism. We are already seeing this. In parts of healthcare, physicians act as dispensing machines of healthcare services – the supplier that simply meets demand. And consumerism, we know, is a terrible substitute for the physician-patient relationship.
Secondly, without proper limits, medicine can become a bait-and-switch. This is especially true when patients seek what medicine ultimately cannot give. The woman who seeks plastic surgery will find that her disease was not her appearance but her insecurity. The man who demands aggressive end-of-life treatments will find that delaying death is fruitless. Medicine cannot give life, fulfillment, or love. Sometimes, it cannot even give health (the thing that medicine is ostensibly for!).
The passage in Acts is one I’ll remember in my journey through medicine. Here, Peter approaches a beggar sitting at the temple gates; the beggar is lame, and has resigned himself to asking passersby for money. Of course, money is not really what this beggar needs, and Peter tells him so (sidebar: can patient autonomy account for this kind of interaction?). Peter, rather, gives the beggar what the beggar himself has lost the ability to hope for: the restoration of his being.
That, I think, is what Christian physicians can do well – to have in mind both what medicine cannot do and what patients truly need. Both go hand in hand. In the world of ever-increasing possibilities and amidst a medical culture without a vision or language to challenge its expansion, Christian physicians can be witnesses to the Kingdom by staying oriented to the true goods.