Medical Treatment for All

Refusal to treat HIV patients could prove to be a slippery slope that leads to refusals to treat other diseases, or certain people.

A dispute has erupted within the health system over the question of whether a doctor is entitled to refuse to treat an HIV carrier. During a recent discussion by the Israel Medical Association's ethics committee, as reported by Dan Even in Tuesday's Haaretz, several doctors on the board supported physicians who refused to treat such patients. A few days earlier, Haaretz published a poll showing that 25 percent of medical students in Israel say they have the right to refuse to treat an AIDS patient or carrier. This is nothing less than a betrayal of their calling, and an abandonment of the patient.

This emerging trend is dangerous, and elicits harsh thoughts about Israel's doctors. It has arisen after years in which it seemed that superstitions and prejudices about AIDS had already vanished from this earth. Precisely when the threat of AIDS has been replaced by an approach that sees the disease as treatable, and when the ways of catching the disease have become known (and limited), Israeli doctors come along and are turning the clock back to the dark years in which AIDS was seen as a demonic plague.

There are currently 5,249 known AIDS carriers in Israel, though the Health Ministry estimates that the real number is as high as 7,744. They are entitled to complete, devoted medical care without any discrimination. The doctors' claim that they have the right not to endanger themselves is an invalid one. The risk of infection today is minimal: The health system itself has 10 doctors who are carriers, yet they are allowed to work, and some even participate in surgical operations. And doctors presumably know what precautions to take.

Medicine, like many other vital professions, entails risks. They should obviously be minimized insofar as possible, but it's a long way from there to refusing to treat AIDS patients. This refusal could also prove to be a slippery slope that will lead to refusals to treat other diseases, or certain people.

"You shall help the patient because he is a patient," reads the Hebrew version of the Hippocratic oath written for the first class of doctors to graduate medical school in Jerusalem, in 1952. The Patient's Rights Law also forbids any discrimination in medical care. Therefore, the IMA must issue the following ruling quickly: Every doctor is obligated to treat every patient.