From a young age, we are taught to trust people in positions of authority. However, there have been countless occasions in which the people that need help the most were only further hurt by those meant to help them. With the recent hurricanes plaguing the southern United States, I was reminded of those with more deadly outcomes. With the recent Hurricane Harvey,  some hospitals had to be evacuated, yet the patients were well accounted for, according to an Aug. 30 Washington Post article. The same, however,  cannot be said of the 2005 Hurricane Katrina.

According to FEMA, over 1,300 lives were lost to Hurricane Katrina. Among those were 35 from St. Rita’s nursing home and 45 from Memorial Medical Center, according to a Sept. 7, 2005 New York Times article and an Aug. 25, 2009 New York Times article, respectively. In these situations, not only did the center come under question for their policies, but blame also fell on the doctors for their proposed preparedness. According to the Sept. 7, 2005 New York Times article, St. Rita’s was one of five major nursing homes in the region of St. Bernard’s Parish and their evacuation plan depended upon that of another nursing home. Oddly, no calls were made to emergency services, and the only signs that precautionary measures were taken were dressers propped against windows and wheelchairs parked near the door. A similar story unfolded at Memorial Medical Center; here, doctors had to determine which patients were worth evacuating. 

Over 48 hours after Katrina initially made landfall, doctors decided to divide patients into groups. Group one was the first to be evacuated, group two was the second and group three was the last. Individuals in group one were immediately taken to meet rescue boats, while group two was placed in a corridor waiting for helicopters and group three was moved to the corner of the second floor lobby. Group three primarily consisted of individuals with “Do Not Resuscitate” orders or those that were terminally ill. One patient was even euthanized using morphine, according to the same Aug. 9 article. Though the doctors involved may justify their decisions on the basis that they need to prioritize those who have the greatest chance of living, who are they to choose who receives help? Doctors are supposed to ensure the health and wellbeing of patients in their care, and deciding who gets to live and who does not is beyond that description. 

Issues of doctors neglecting patient well-being is nothing new. 

A historic example of medical neglect and outright malpractice is the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male.”  According to the Center for Disease Control, the “study” began in 1932 when the Public Health Service began working with the Tuskegee Institute to study the natural progression of untreated syphilis. The individuals involved were told that they would be receiving treatments for “bad blood.” Of the 600 men studied, 399 had syphilis — none of whom received treatment for their ailment — and 201 did not. In exchange for their participation in the study, the men received free meals and medical exams. Even with the invention of penicillin, the men in the study still did not receive any actual medical treatment. When the Associated Press covered this revelation in 1972, when the study had finally ended, seven men had died of syphilis, and 150 had died of heart complications. Additionally, all of the doctors involved had already retired, according to July 25 Time article. Subsequently, a panel appointed by the Assistant Secretary for Health and Science Affairs found that none of the men had received adequate information to give consent nor were the details of the study revealed to them in totality. The experiment lasted for 40 years, and according to a June 17, 2016 article in the Atlantic, it even contributed to the disparity in life expectancy between Black and white men in the 1980s. This is due to the lack of trust that members of the Black community developed after the AP article was published. This experiment led to the establishment of the Belmont report, which serves to protect the liberties of individuals involved in research. It summarizes the basic ethical principles used when conducting research involving human participants. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, it: establishes boundaries between research and medical practice, assesses the role of risk-benefit criteria, sets appropriate guidelines for the selection of human subjects and establishes a definition of informed consent. Though the report was put in place to protect people from the possible misuse of power by individuals in the field of medicine, this continues to be a problem.

According to a March 22 ABC News article, this is a continuing problem within the medical field. More than 100 students at the University of Toronto’s medical school were interviewed for their opinions on ethical dilemmas. Of these students, half said that they were placed in a situation where an instructor encouraged them to act unethically and 61 percent even admitted to seeing doctors act unethically. It almost seems that prospective doctors are being groomed to go against the very oath they take to protect their patients. There needs to be a serious adjustment made to the medical field and how doctors are trained to react to difficult situations. The mistakes of the past have not been a deterrent or a motivation for those in the field to adjust their practices.