Physicians at the barricades

Jim Welsh

October 18, 1991|By Jim Welsh

I THINK I am a lucky man. After a half-century of service, my body, which has gone to paunch, still serves me well enough. The plumbing and sewage system still works. The ticker still ticks.

And if anything goes wrong, I have a doctor I respect -- a straight-arrow, conscientious, hard-working Mormon, who keeps up with what professionals call "the literature." Does his homework and still has a little time left over to JimWelshenjoy the arts. He treats me like a thinking human being, and I appreciate that. I found him years ago after surveying local nurses. They know who's good and who's not, and if you can number them among your friends they make recommendations.

Of course medical schools are selective, and one assumes that most doctors are "good." But if you're seriously ill, you want the outstanding, not the merely good. Many doctors are overworked for reasons having to do with money or with ambition and professional pride.

Some doctors are probably careless and even incompetent. They burn out. They have their own professional drug stores near at hand to fall back on. They have malpractice insurance, and some surely need it.

The American Medical Association doesn't want ordinary folks to harbor such thoughts. AMA officials must cringe at movies like "What About Bob?" in which Richard Dreyfuss plays a selfish, vain and pompous psychiatrist whose secret ambition is to become a best-selling author and media star.

In "Doc Hollywood," Michael J. Fox plays a hotshot yuppie doctor who wants to serve humankind by practicing plastic surgery in Beverly Hills. In August, CBS did a "48 Hours" report on dedicated professionals at a community hospital in Boston, but this was offset by ABC's "Primetime Live" expose of outrageous overpricing at a corporate hospital in Kentucky.

And then, additional horror, along came "The Doctor," with William Hurt playing a humanoid surgeon who treats his patients as objects until he ends up on the wrong side of the examining table and gets a taste of his own medicine. He is diagnosed as having throat cancer by a female humanoid throat specialist.

As a patient he has no authority, no respect. He is regarded as an organism to be probed and examined and diagnosed and treated.

He turns eventually to a compassionate mensch, a Jewish doctor he has once made fun of, for he recognizes the need for compassion as well as surgical skill.

"The Doctor" is as much an expose of the medical profession as a feel-good movie. Dr. Jack MacKee, the Hurt character, learns compassion from another patient (Elizabeth Perkins), who is dying of a brain tumor.

She teaches him what apparently is not taught in med school, and that's the problem.

No wonder the AMA is running to Madison Avenue for a quick image fix. But the AMA should re-evaluate med school priorities rather than seeking an improved image.

Physicians, heal thyselves!

Jim Welsh is an associate professor of English at Salisbury State University and the editor of Literature/Film Quarterly.

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