Health Check: 'With such a lack of empathy, you wonder why these doctors chose medicine'

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Here is a tale from a just-qualified doctor of life as a medical student. "In one clinic, after saying goodbye to a charming family, the doctor turned to me and said, 'You meet some wonderful people in this profession. It's a shame not all patients are like that; some are ungrateful. Take all these blacks: they sit around in council houses; unemployed; complaining all the time. They are so lazy'.

Here is a tale from a just-qualified doctor of life as a medical student. "In one clinic, after saying goodbye to a charming family, the doctor turned to me and said, 'You meet some wonderful people in this profession. It's a shame not all patients are like that; some are ungrateful. Take all these blacks: they sit around in council houses; unemployed; complaining all the time. They are so lazy'.

"On another occasion, we were being taught about chest X-rays. Our mentor decided to let us into a secret. 'What test do you want to do if you see a nipple ring on a male X-ray?' We were all baffled. Smiling shrewdly, the teacher said, 'HIV'. Then he revealed the line of thought: nipple ring; homosexual; cough; therefore HIV.

"I am not suggesting that these incidents are typical of my medical education, but the taste of sour milk lingers, however quickly you try to forget."

When you read these anecdotes, with their breathtaking lack of empathy, you wonder what made these doctors choose medicine. They appear, fleetingly, in a wonderful new book about David Widgery, an east London GP, political activist and writer who occupied the opposite end of the medical spectrum until he died a decade ago, tragically, at the youthful age of 45.

The book - Confronting an Ill Society, published by Radcliffe - is by Patrick Hutt and was largely written while he was a medical student at Cambridge. It describes how reading Widgery helped him cope with the crass insensitivity of some of his teachers, and opened up the connections between politics and medicine.

I knew Widgery and Hutt when I lived on their manor - Hackney, east London - in the 1980s. For Widgery, who helped form Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League, the NHS "allowed a different set of values to flourish in the age of possessive individualism".

For Hutt, who wrote the book while his own father, also a GP, was dying from malignant melanoma, the NHS was always there when needed. "Science could not save him," he says, "but science saves very few people, and ultimately none of us. Medicine can only strive to make the journey of life more bearable."

I commend the book for the way it charts the progress of one thoughtful young doctor from a belief in the power of medicine to a recognition of its powerlessness, and his search for a broader meaning which lies somewhere between political action, social responsibility and individual care. We need more doctors like Widgery - and more like both Hutts, father and son.

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There was a telling moment in last week's press conference to announce the results of the Government's massive review of antidepressants.

Professor Kent Woods, the chief executive of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, was asked if the drugs had been over-prescribed? Yes, he replied, they probably had been. Hang on a minute, said Professor Louis Appleby, the Government's mental health tsar - a much bigger problem than over-prescribing was the under-treatment of depression.

That brief exchange condensed more than two years of argument, anxiety and confusion over the antidepressants known as SSRIs. Woods, the drugs regulator, was concerned about safety. His priority was to minimise risk. Appleby, the psychiatrist, was concerned with patients. His priority was to minimise suffering.

The Committee on Safety of Medicines spent 18 months sifting through thousands of documents to produce its report. The best thing to come out of the inquiry and the publicity around it is the way it has exposed the duplicity of the drug industry in withholding details that did not bolster its share price. On the other hand, how many people with moderate or severe depression have been deterred from having treatment as a result?

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