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Personal Prejudices in Medicine by Medical Student Katherine French

In my Baylor College of Medicine elective Healing by Killing: Medicine during the Third Reich, students struggle with their newly discovered knowledge about the best doctors in the world murdering Jews, people with disabilities, homosexuals, blacks, and many others. They find it even more difficult to understand how these medical killers could justify their actions by transforming the Hippocratic Oath from a doctor-patient relationship to a eugenic state-Volkskörper relationship, thereby enabling the elimination of human beings perceived as a cancer on the nation’s body. Katherine notes that “Everyone has prejudices and everyone makes judgments about people before getting to know them, but as a physician your prejudices can have life-threatening consequences.” Her personal prescription to avoid repetition of the Nazi physicians’ medical crimes is “to take a look at the prejudices I have and confront them, however uncomfortable it might make me.”


 

Healing by Killing: Medicine in the Third Reich

By Katherine French

This course has taught me the immeasurable value of my own ethical principles in regards to my future line of work as a physician. Taking a look at the example of the science and health care field during Nazi Germany has educated me in ways that I was not expecting and was honestly quite uncomfortable learning. Before this course, I knew little about healthcare during Nazi Germany and held the inaccurate belief that the German physicians’ hands were somehow forced to commit the various atrocities they did during the Holocaust. I held the notion that Joseph Mengele was among a few bad apples that conducted human experiments during the Holocaust.


However, the German physicians intentionally harmed people that they had either convinced themselves were not people at all or for their notion of the greater good. “Harmed” is putting it all too lightly. German physicians experimented on people, derived efficient ways to kill people in mass, starved people, and tortured people. They went far beyond “do no harm”. The German physicians were driven by the emerging science of genetics and ancient philosophy of eugenics in a time of economic struggle and with the authority of a dictator, but most importantly and most tragically they were driven by prejudice.


This course has reminded me how important it is to take a look at the prejudices I have and confront them, however uncomfortable it might make me. I find myself thinking about the initial judgments I had about certain people in my life, or people that I pass by everyday. Everyone has prejudices and everyone makes judgments about people before getting to know them, but as a physician your prejudices can have life-threatening consequences. I hope by getting into the practice of recognizing my biases, I will be able to prevent the negative consequences of prejudiced actions.


The book Health Disparities in the United States by Dr. Donald A. Barr is a great resource for anyone in the health care field who wants a research-based introduction to the conflation of race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status in America on health outcomes. In this book, the author concludes that race/ethnicity should only be used to guide medical decisions in “circumstances based on clear scientific evidence and with the full knowledge and consent of the person on whose behalf the medical decision is being made.” This is a rational conclusion that I will follow in my future career as a physician.


Part of the attraction to the profession of a physician is the ability to solve problems – you hope to cure a patient’s disease and improve that patient’s life. Physicians in Nazi Germany were driven by the same desires, and thought perhaps they could take it up a notch– they through that they could solve their societies’ problems through eugenics. They excluded huge groups of people from their selfcreated image of a “fixed” society and destroyed communities in the process. The problem of prejudice is not a new one, but I want to prevent it from having an effect in my professional career as much as possible.


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