Not my place to judge others

'Only a fool writes for anything but money,' said Samuel Johnson, as he and Oliver Goldsmith were roistering across England and having a beer or two or three and a feast of roast pork and arguing about whether there really was an animal called an aardvark, which, if it existed, might have involved re-writing the whole dictionary.

So it is an indication of the degree of outrage I felt a few years ago when Saddam Hussein, after his capture, was televised undergoing an examination by US army medical personnel, that I felt compelled to write, unpaid, a letter of protest to the British Medical Journal.

That'll give the Yanks something to think about, I reckoned, they won't do that again in case I might write another one.

No matter how evil or immoral his actions, I wrote, Saddam was their patient, and therefore deserved the same duty of care as any other patient would expect to receive; this duty included allowing him the right to privacy and confidentiality. The ethical responsibilities of those medical personnel should not have been over-ridden by the US army's need for a public relations coup.

It has never been a doctor's prerogative to pass moral judgment on our patients; it's not our call. If they come to us, we treat them; whether they are Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin, Attila the Hun or even Harry Potter, whatever they've done, whatever they may do, no matter how drunk, stoned, cheeky, obnoxious or obsessed with world domination and genocide they might be, it's still our job to patch them up as best we can and send them either home to their families or back to the mercies of a military court.

This onerous ethical obligation particularly comes home to roost every Hallowe'en, when we get the inevitable influx of impertinent and delinquent brats brought in snivelling after having burnt themselves by fooling around with fireworks or jumping into bonfires to prove they are the biggest sucker in their peer group.

Therapeutic interventions may, of course, extend to prevention of future similar transgressions and, a good hard kick in the arse and the threat that what they'd get next time would make Lord of the Flies look like Disneyland, may be viewed as an appropriate form of what Pendleton (much-beloved by our course organiser when I was a trainee) would have considered an integral part of every consultation.

Opportunistic health promotion; ain't it great?

Dr Farrell is a GP from County Armagh. Email him at

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