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Guest Editorial

Doctors must be able to tell the truth

BY DANIEL B. KLINE

Doctors get investigated when they make a well-intentioned mistake. They get investigated when something out of their control goes wrong and they get investigated when bad luck strikes their patients. Now it seems they can also get investigated for delivering potentially life-saving advice if that advice happens to offend their patient's delicate sensibilities.

A doctor in New Hampshire faces this latest insult to his profession because he told an overweight woman rather bluntly that she was obese. According to the New Hampshire Union Leader, Dr. Terry Bennett gave the woman "an obesity lecture," which he described as a stark litany designed to get the attention of obese female patients.

He told the newspaper that he tells obese women they most likely will outlive an obese spouse and will have a difficult time establishing a new relationship because studies show most males are completely negative to obese women. Bennett said he tells them their obesity will lead to high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, gastroesophageal reflux and stroke.

Everything Dr. Bennett told his patient was true. Obesity kills more people in this country than cancer, heart disease, AIDS or any other disease doctors don't have to fear warning their patients about. None of this matters to the patient who found the doctor's attempt to get her to focus on the obvious offensive, resulting in her filing a complaint that has led to an investigation by New Hampshire's attorney general.

Getting investigated for telling a fat woman she's fat - a condition that could kill her - would be like investigating a firefighter for telling someone that smoking near an open container of gasoline might be a bad idea. It should be more important that a doctor delivers this message to his patients than that he delivers it with the proper sensitivity.

A doctor should have a pleasant bedside manner and it would be nice if he has the intuition required to deliver information to each patient in the way he or she likes to hear it. It's more important, however, for a doctor to be good at practicing medicine and healing sick people.

We all love charming doctors, but nobody would have wanted MASH's Hawkeye Pierce or ER's Doug Ross performing his surgery if he was witty, but incompetent. These doctors were TV characters and not real people because in the real world, being competent doesn't always leave time for being nice. A jerk who saves your life is a lot more valuable than a really swell fellow who inadvertently removes your liver instead of your tonsils.

Bedside manner is a nice bonus in a physician, but it's not a necessity. If this woman in New Hampshire didn't like how she was treated, she should have found a lousy doctor willing to ignore the obvious problems her obesity presented.

When doctors lose the ability to talk honestly with their patients, the quality of health care in the United States will rapidly decline. We can't investigate doctors for telling the truth and we must not make them afraid to do their jobs.

Daniel B. Kline is a freelance writer based in Connecticut. He can be reached at dan@notastep.com.

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