Medical Diagnosis: We Suck!

So NINETY-NINE+ percent of emergency room doctors polled think we use excessive force? Let's hear it for the less than one-percenters!

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

My mother and father died 45 years apart, almost to the day. Each was under a doctor's care at the time of their passing. And thanks to the surgical malfeasance of a Board-certified butcher, my step-mother now needs a walker to get around. I suspect that if anyone might have a particular bias against doctors, it might well be me.

Despite this family history, I have by and large withheld any unilateral judgment of the medical profession. I know I lack the presumed expertise of its members, and am largely ignorant of what should be the reasonably expected outcome of medical procedures given a particular era, a physician's experience, and all around health of the patient.

Witnessing the kind of wholesale slander associated with our own profession and knowing every vocation has its bad apples has been something of an inhibiter, as well. Maybe my family just has an uncanny knack for coming across those wearing white smocks, stethoscopes, and "Ask Me About My God Complex!" buttons.

But then I read the following headline, as well as the ensuing article.

"Excessive Police Violence Evident in Emergency Care Cases, Say U.S. Doctors"

Among the poll's findings published in the Emergency Medicine Journal were that almost all (99.8%) of respondents believed that the police use excessive force to arrest and detain suspects, and that a similar number (98%) confirmed that they had treated patients who they suspected had sustained injuries/bruising inflicted by police officers. Two thirds of respondents said they had treated two or more such cases a year.

For so large a percentage of the medical professionals polled to effectively impugn our brothers and sisters left me momentarily speechless.

Note: I said momentarily.

Some Perspective

Think about that for a second. Ninety-eight percent of the 315 academic emergency care doctors in the U.S. who responded to the poll believed that patients who came into their charge for injuries incurred while under our authority had been abused. That means that only two percent of those polled were inclined to give us the benefit of the doubt when it came to the legitimacy of the degree of force used. And virtually all—with a singular hold-out if my math is correct—believed that cops use excessive force.

Now, while some chief of dermatology might argue the point—and probably would, given the results of this poll—I don't find myself particularly thin-skinned. But to get some perspective on this, when it comes to polls, a HIGHER percentage of

  • Foreign policy experts believe Iraq will become a "beacon of democracy."
  • Voters believe officials "know exactly what they're doing and how the ($700 billion) rescue plan will affect the economy."
  • People see disgraced Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich as more ethical than most politicians.
  • People believed Bill Clinton's book would be "completely truthful."
  • Arabs believe the U.S. troop build-up in Iraq in the last year has worked.
  • People believed Scott Peterson wasn't involved in his wife Laci's murder.

Ninety-eight percent. You have to score better than that percentage of the population to qualify for Mensa, but in this instance, I think the numbers qualify for something else.

Apologists can say, "Well, it's a mere sampling." Fine. And their findings still defy credulity. This, coupled with the fact that it gets published and finds still other morons calling for further outside scrutiny of our profession, pisses me off more.

The Hippocratic Oath says, "First, do no harm," but given the medical profession is nonetheless responsible for an estimated 90,000 accidental deaths a year, I guess such randomized appraisals of the efforts of our own profession shouldn't be surprising.

My Observations

Well, since the surgical gloves are apparently off, I want to make a few observations of my own.

As a supervisor with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, it was my responsibility to investigate any deputy-involved use of force that occurred on my watch (assuming another supervisor didn't). This entailed interviewing any and all witnesses that could be located; often, this included friends and relatives of the suspect, as well as the suspect himself.

Rare was the occasion where a witness said that the use of force was excessive. Rarer still were the times when such allegations held up under the barest of scrutiny. In other words, a vast majority of the time—the smart-ass in me wants to say ninety-eight percent of the time—the force used was not only justifiable, but prudent.

Indeed, I've documented incidents wherein deputies wrenched their backs or otherwise injured themselves trying not to hurt a suspect. At least one deputy was medically retired behind such an injury.

Is it unreasonable to ask why this poll was conducted in the first place? What was the agenda? To get published elsewhere and offer up one more pernicious sliver in the side of law enforcement (which it did). And doesn't it say something about the physicians that responded to it?

Still, the fact that some two percent backed our play on the one point makes me wonder if there were a few police reserves among the doctors polled. Doctors who'd been more exposed to the less savory aspects of our profession and were therefore more inclined to recognize the stark contrast between a suspect's violent behavior in the field and the docility he may display in an emergency room.

As far as the other ninety-eight percent...well, hey, at least we haven't left a retractor in our ward's abdomen, sponges on their spleen, or screwed up her plumbing ala rectovaginal fistula (look it up…too gross to go into herein).

Alike But Different

The sad thing is, it's not as though doctors and cops don't have much in common. Between our two professions, we probably account for seventy percent of America's dramatic television series. We've each got groupies. At the very least, some of the things doctors have scribbled on their medical charts rival what I've seen written in some police reports:

  • "The patient has no past history of suicides."
  • "When she fainted, her eyes rolled around the room."
  • "Discharge status: Alive but without permission."
  • "The patient will need disposition, and therefore we will get Dr. Blank to dispose of him."
  • "Occasional, constant, infrequent headaches."
  • "The skin was moist and dry."

But I guess one fundamental difference between the doctors polled and cops in general is that if cops believe something is wrong, they by and large bring it to someone's attention, e.g. child abuse details, family crimes bureau, fraud units, internal affairs, etc.

A vast majority of these doctors won't even do that, by their own admission. They'll save their grave suspicions for the safe anonymity of polls.

It appears to me that there's a good number of doctors—say about 98% of those polled—out there who are in desperate need of some vertebrae transplants.

Physicians, heal thyselves.

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Author Dean Scoville Headshot
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