A Reminder on "Medical" Ethics

Physicians play a key role in their patients' health, but they can also have a huge impact on their local communities.

“The first step in the evolution of ethics is a sense of solidarity with other human beings.”

—Dr. Albert Schweitzer

Physicians are ethical—that should be a given. Thankfully, most people recognize it.

About two out of three citizens say that medical doctors have “very high” or “high” standards of honesty and ethics, according to an annual

on the topic. This places doctors in the number two spot for the most honest and ethical profession as judged by Americans. Nurses were at the top at 80%; pharmacists were tied for second with physicians at 65%.

Gallup Poll

Beyond an ethical responsibility to patients, which the American Medical Association's

calls “first and foremost,” physicians must also “recognize a responsibility to participate in activities contributing to the improvement of the community.” Not too long ago I got an important reminder about this duty.

Principles of Medical Ethics

A while back my uncle told me about a

story he read. A prominent New York physician was quoted in a news article on pulmonary disease and my uncle explained to me that my grandfather (his father), George A. Sheehan, MD, had played a crucial role in the 1940s seeing that the doctor’s father and his uncle were accepted into medical school and dental school, respectively.

New York Times

I was so pleased to learn that my grandfather—who taught generations of doctors as a respected professor of medicine at the Long Island College of Medicine (now known as the SUNY Downstate Medical Center)—also focused on a person’s ability. The family he vouched for was Jewish, my uncle explained, and back in the days prior to World War II there were quotas on Jews being admitted to professional schools.

Both of the men my grandfather helped went on to successful professional careers and grandpa even sent his family to one for dental care. “I always thought it took some courage on Dad's part,” my uncle explained. “Back then it was one thing for a physician in a virtual Irish Catholic ghetto in Brooklyn to help a Jewish kid get into medical or dental school; it was something else again to send your children to him once he graduates.”

My grandfather died in 1953 so I never knew him—only the legends as told by his 14 children (my aunts and uncles). They characterized him as the ultimate healing physician. Now I understand that he was a man of high principle and further realize why he was my physician-father’s idol.

My grandfather did the medical profession and his family proud. Lesson learned.