Tolerance in medicine


There is a narrative being pushed now about health care professionals being “frustrated” and “tired” in the midst of this current delta COVID wave. This stems from the idea that this current wave was potentially preventable if everyone received the COVID vaccines when they were made available.

Dr. Ronald Matuszak Courtesy of Sound Physicians

Dr. Ronald Matuszak

I certainly understand this frustration and am tired of dealing with COVID restrictions and wearing masks. Above all I’m tired of talking about it. But frustration and fatigue are nothing new for those in the health care profession. Part of our training is that we should care for everyone, no matter what. Compassion for the ill should not be restricted to patients with a certain financial status, immigration status, race, gender, sexual orientation, or education level. Socially and politically, we are having a reckoning with how we treat people and how we need to do better to create a more just society. A key virtue in all of this is tolerance.

If we are going to have a free society, tolerance is essential. This is because in a free society people are going to, well, be free. In medicine we tolerate people who are morbidly obese, drink alcohol excessively, smoke, refuse to take their medications, won’t exercise, won’t sleep, and do drugs. The overwhelming majority of these people know that what they are doing is bad for their health. Not only do we tolerate them, we are taught to treat them indiscriminately. When someone who is morbidly obese has a heart attack, we treat them, give them medicine, and tell them the importance of losing weight. We do not tell them, “you shouldn’t have eaten so much and gotten so fat,” or “don’t you wish you didn’t get so fat?”

What I am trying to circle back to here is that if you could force people into doing everything they could for their health and eliminate all “preventable” diseases, then the need for health care in this country – including doctors, nurses, hospitals, and pharmaceuticals, just to name a few – would be cut dramatically. While the frustration for the continued COVID surges is understandable, I urge people to remember that in the business of health care we deal with preventable diseases all the time, every day. We are taught to show compassion for everyone, and for good reason. We have no idea what many people’s backstories are, we just know that they are sick and need help.

I urge everyone to put the unvaccinated under the same umbrella you put other people with preventable diseases, which, sadly, is a lot of patients. Continue to educate those about the vaccine as you should about every other aspect of their health. Education is part of our job as health care professionals but judgment is not.

Dr. Matuszak works for Sound Physicians and is a nocturnist at a hospital in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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