Complacency in the Medical-Industrial Complex

Hussain Ather

Long gone are the days of scientists only locked up in labs, secluded from everything but their microscopes and calculators. Now, more than ever, scientists find themselves writing reports and grant proposals, managing jobs, sitting on committees, and delivering lectures. Scientists work in issues at the forefront of policy, ethics, law, and other areas of society. Though these duties may be as fluid as viscous liquid or as dynamic as biological evolution, scientists and non-scientists alike struggle everyday with understanding science’s role in society.

Lisa M. Lee, Ph.D., M.A., M.S., Executive Director for the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, gave her talk, Committed Professionals: Handling Obstacles to Ethics, on November 13 to an audience of professors, physicians, and other professionals, she considered the current state of affairs in public health ethics and bioethics. She spoke from her background in bioethics, including her work in public health surveillance and privacy. But, as I sat in the front row of the lecture hall, I couldn’t help but wonder, if scientists have expanded their roles in other areas, why was there still such a huge gap between science and policy?

We’ve taught ourselves to be complacent. With the slow death of the liberal arts education, we’ve sold science as a way to manufacture jobs, but forgotten about the important values of humanism necessary for personal growth. We need to encourage science as a way to seek the truth, of both the economy and virtues. No doubt, science should make money, but it should also teach us values such as wonder, curiosity, and humility in the world.

Dr. Lee suggested requiring ethics training programs for graduate students. I was dubious of this solution because, while it may help students understand ethics, a requirement can only do so much to foster curiosity and humanism before encouraging complacency and discouraging innovation.

Students who aspire to become physicians suffer from this complacency. As pre-medical undergraduates, we have long paths in front of us before becoming a practicing physician. We spend four years taking courses like organic chemistry, physics, and biology while preparing for the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT). Along the way, we volunteer, shadow, and engage in extracurricular activities before entering a four-year medical school program. After that, we have residency and training before becoming a fully-practicing physician. With such a long, stringent path, it’s easy to forget about what’s really important and how to “live in the moment.” Instead, we succumb to utilitarian, consumerist motives as we value information over wisdom, marketability over authenticity, and dogmatism over free thought. And, when we aren’t prepared for the future, the “Medical-Industrial Complex,” as Dr. Lee puts it, thrives.

We can only address the ethical issues in science, medicine, and public health through a thorough examination the values we instill in ourselves through education. Those of us who can break from the complacency of everyday life to higher ideals, including courage, justice, and empathy, will be ready to fight the problems of tomorrow.

Hussain Ather is a pre-med undergraduate student at Indiana University Bloomington and co-founder of the IU Undergraduate Bioethics Society.

December 3, 2015

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Ken Pimple

About Ken Pimple

I've been involved in the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics before its actual creation. I am coordinating the international conversation on the future of practical and professional ethics for APPE, and organizing five workshops that will be held at Indiana University in Bloomington in academic year 2014-15.

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