Sunday, 3 March 2013

The duties of a physician - a Puritan's prescription

Richard Baxter (1615-1691), author of The Saint's Everlasting Rest and The Reformed Pastor, was known as 'an eminent curer of souls'. 

This advice for Christian Physicians (taken from his 1673 Christian Directory) gives interesting insights into the doctor-patient relationship in the 17th century and good guidance for us today.

Baxter did not want to 'intermeddle in the mysteries of (physicians') art' but wanted to tell 'the learned men of this noble profession... what God and conscience will expect from them'. His directives can be summarised as follows:

1. Put the patient first
We are to 'be sure that the saving of men's lives and health' is 'first and chiefly in (our) intention, before any gain or honour of (our) own'. This is the only way to ensure that 'it is God that (we) serve' rather than ourselves.

2. Serve the poor
We are to 'be ready to help the poor as well as the rich; differencing them no further than the public good requireth (us) to do'. Christian service honours the vulnerable.

3. Know your limits
We are to 'adventure not unnecessarily on things beyond (our) skill' but rather, in difficult cases, to be ready to 'persuade (our) patients to use the help of abler physicians'.

4. Depend on God
We are to 'depend on God for our direction and success' by earnestly 'craving his help and blessing in our undertakings'. God is the source of all our ability, knowledge and skill.

5. Prepare for eternity
We are to 'let (our) continual observation of the fragility of the flesh, and man's mortality, make (us) more spiritual than other men, and more industrious in preparing for the life to come'. Death and suffering should produce seriousness and not cynicism in us.

6. Share Christ
We should 'exercise (our) compassion and charity to men's souls, as well as to their bodies' by '(speaking) such words as tend to prepare them'. We are reminded that as doctors we 'have excellent opportunities, if (we) have hearts to take them'.

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