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Physicians’ Responsibilities Regarding Terrorism & Torture

June 10, 2011

There’s one encouraging and one very disturbing report in today’s forwards from the ever-invaluable Ken Pope. Let’s start with the dark side.  

British Doctors Will be Asked to Report
Patients “At Risk of Becoming Terrorists”

Ken reports that an article in the new issue of British Medical Journal, indicates that an upcoming revision to the country’s “Prevent” program will call on physicians “to help identify people at risk of becoming terrorists.” According to the article’s author, Clare Dyer, the British Medical Association says it has not been consulted on the new policy, and that the move would put doctors “in an impossible position.”
            The new policy, according to an article in The Guardian, will be released on Tuesday. BMJ says that the forthcoming document, “suggests that people with mental health problems or learning disabilities may be more easily drawn into terrorism.” (The article can be accessed online, but only by subscribers or by payment of a $30 one-time/one day fee. Universities and other institutions may also be able to provide access.)

Alan Travis’s piece in The Guardian is more helpful. It indicates that the new policy is quite controversial within the UK government, and has, in fact, delayed publication of the revised program for five months. The “Prevent” program was first developed to combat home-grown terrorism following bombing incidents in 2005. It’s currently funded at £60 million per year (about $90 million.)
            Travis writes that the revised document will ask doctors “to identify people who may be ‘vulnerable’ to recruitment by terrorist groups.” He quotes a BMA spokesperson as saying “Doctors cannot look into the future and say how someone might behave. This would threaten the trust of the doctor and…patient relationship. A doctor’s role is to treat the patient in front of them, not predict how the patient will behave in future.” (NOTE: “Prevent” has provoked controversy from the start. For a little background see the articles here and here.)

N.Y. Medical Board Could
Discipline Physicians for Torture

On a somewhat more hopeful note, Kevin B. O’Reilly writes on that first-in-the-nation legislation proposed for New York would give the state’s Medical Board the power to discipline physicians and others “who take part in, or conceal evidence of, torture.” The bill (see full text here) “would give the state medical board and other health professional licensing boards the explicit authority to suspend or revoke practice rights.” It prohibits health professionals from “directly participating in torture, treating patients with the intent of determining when torture could continue, concealing medical evidence of torture or taking part in individual interrogations. Health professionals could generally advise interrogators on rapport building or other nonabusive techniques.”
            “We want to clarify that this is, indeed, grounds for discipline and also to achieve a preventive effect” said Dr. Allen Keller, Associate Professor of Medicine at NYU School of Medicine. Keller directs the Bellevue Hospital Center / New York University Program for Survivors of Torture, in New York City. 

“It’s easier for individuals to torture than we’d like to think, because of hierarchies and environments that allow it. We believe this legislation would help physicians who are put in an untenable position to say, ‘I can’t do this; I’d lose my license.” 
                                                           — Dr. Allen Keller

While the Medical Society of the State of New York has opposed physician participation in torture or direct participation in interrogations, it said the matter is best handled at the federal level. Keller responds that “health professionals — whether they practice in their state or in the Army or wherever — they do so because they have a license that is issued not by the federal government or the Army but by a state.”

(NOTE: Regarding the poster at top of this post. I would welcome any info. The one I’ve reproduced here is clearly a parody. For example, the text at lower right, next to the credit card, reads: “Terrorists often have dubious sources of income. Do you know any bankers?” However, I have not been able to determine whether “If you suspect it, report it” is a real government campaign, and whether it is related to the “Prevent” initiative. Help!)

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