Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of July 15, 2002
Physicians with faith
St. Luke's Guild helps doctors explore ethics in a brave new world
By LASHA MORNINGSTAR
WCR News Editor
Euthanasia laws creep into nations' law books. Legislators give the go-ahead to stem cell research. And with science the seeming god-voice of the new millennium, a Catholic physician could feel so alone with their swirling ethical dilemmas.
"Things move too fast, change too fast," says Dr. Dennis Vincent. "It is nice to be able to go away and meditate and pray."
The meditating and praying this Edmonton physician is talking about is the time he spends with his fellow members of St. Luke's Physicians' Guild.
Founded in 1954, the guild describes itself as "a fellowship of Catholic physicians in Alberta who seek to enrich the moral aspects of their work through prayer, learning, service and provision of leadership."
The changing nature of health care makes the guild an even more essential touchstone to physicians such as Vincent. With the old faith-based hospitals such as Catholic, Jewish, Salvation Army, there was a vision, values and ethics that guided the healing facilities' decisions.
"What is guiding our hospitals now is budget, efficiency," says Vincent. "Patient care is based on providing the most efficient treatment and that is it. How much does it cost to provide treatment to a handicapped child? People are doing those calculations in their minds now.
"Same with end-of-life issues. How much does it cost to maintain someone in a vegetative state for so many more months, years. Someone is going to start doing the math, proposing new initiatives.
"That is what worries me. You don't have a higher level of moral guidance to help them with these issues. Every hospital has its ethics committee, but I think it is just window dressing."
Current guild president Dr. Ron Humble echoes Vincent with his concern that "medicine is more a business, not a profession shared by contemporaries."
And this sharing amongst professionals is one of the strengths offered by the guild.
An anesthetist, Humble remembers when the professional organization nearly petered out in the early 1980s and psychiatrist Dr. Henry Wojcicki, physicians from the Polish community and Archbishop Joseph MacNeil stepped in and gave the breath of life to the medical organization.
Now, with a paid up membership of 50 to 60 doctors, St. Luke's Guild meets several times a year, with the highlight being an annual Mass and dinner with a thought-provoking guest speaker. The speaker at this October meeting will be pediatrician Dr. John Patrick who tangles with thorny ethical dilemmas such as euthanasia.
The guild also looks to its future members by running essay contests for university medical students. The students are given a problematic scenario and told to respond to it. For example, this year's problem given to third and fourth year students says the writer would know of a medical colleague who had committed a medical error that could eventually lead to their patient's death.
"What should you do, ethically, in this case regarding your colleague and the patient and her family?"
Humble explains, "We are trying to encourage their involvement and thinking of medical ethics in a climate that recognizes a greater being."
He is quite delighted as he says there have been initial meetings to establish an undergraduate ethics club.
"Medicine is more a business, not a profession shared by contemporaries."
- Dr. Ron Humble
Humble is equally pleased with the solidifying of the organization even to the point of having an up-to-date Web site, with plans to add links to like-minded organizations.
A physician who has practised his medicine in foreign lands, Humble is also quick to point out membership is not restricted to Catholics.
"We have more than one doctor who is not Catholic but shares our philosophy."
Vincent has also extended the hand of fellowship to four doctors in the community. They are Catholic, yes, but because there is no funding for residency positions, they are not practising medicine. These four men, some high-level specialists, fled the Congo and would be killed if they returned to their homeland.
"They are still physicians, but are isolated," says Vincent. "Membership would at least allow them contact with their peers."
The quietly thoughtful actions of both of these physicians bespeaks the tenor of this guild.
Says Vincent, "I am uncomfortable with militancy. When you go to the Mass, it is so peaceful, like a refuge. That is enough to give us strength. You don't have to be militant.
"If it (the guild) can grow in that sense, allow more and more Catholic physicians to gently join, feel that refuge and comfort and thoughtfulness, that is good."