No matter what laws are passed, how many hospitals are built or what insurance policies are established, the crux of health care is the relationship patients have with their physicians, Dr. Carlos J. Cardenas said at The University of Texas-Pan American's fourth annual bioethics conference held March 20-23.
"When you think about the delivery of health care and you think about how that all happens, lots of things come to mind. You think about facilities, hospitals, you think about hospice, you think about clinics, places where you go to get things done, you think about insurance companies, you think about pharmacies, you think about all of the different aspects of what is our health care system," Cardenas, a gastroenterologist and chairman of the board at Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, said. "But I would propose to you that no amount of bricks and mortar ever healed a patient, not one insurance plan ever cured a patient, much less held their hand, and no set of laws written by policy makers in Washington or Austin ever truly saved a life because health care is still delivered one patient at a time."
Cardenas was one of a handful of keynote speakers who presented their speeches at the conference, which was themed "Bioethics: Health Care and Treatment in Education and Practice."
The four-day event was free and open to the public, thanks to sponsors McAllen Anesthesia Consultants, Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, the Pan American collaboration for Ethics in the Professions (PACE), the Coalition Against Violence and Exploitation, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, College of Arts and Humanities, UTPA's College of Science and Mathematics, College of Health Sciences and Human Services, Continuing Education, and local hospitals and businesses in the Rio Grande Valley.
Dr. Cynthia Jones, associate professor of philosophy and PACE director at UTPA, said the bioethics conferences developed out of a need to discuss health care issues in the Valley.
"We thought that it was prudent to involve the stakeholders in discussion of ethical health care in our community," Jones said. "We want ethical physicians, absolutely, but physicians are just a small part of the health care puzzle, and here at the University we train a lot of the future health care professionals in the Valley."
Topics for the conference change every year, based on the needs of the area, but there are recurring themes, including diabetes, obesity and healthy living, because they are problems in the Valley, Jones said.
"The whole idea is to have our students, faculty, staff, community members and our local health care providers involved in a dialogue about the current state of our health care and the ethical challenges we face in health care because everybody is affected by health care," Jones said.
In his presentation, Cardenas talked about the importance of all those involved in determining health care honoring the doctor-patient relationship and how the practice of medicine has evolved over the past 2,500 years from a paternalistic structure to a team-based structure incorporating health care professionals in all disciplines.
"At the end of the day, it's the human being, the human touch reaching out to other human beings, that's the crux of all of it," Cardenas said. "It is the metric by which we should design policy so that it goes from the bedside, not to the boardroom, not to the halls of Congress, but that whatever it is, it is measured by that metric and that it does preserve the sanctity of the physician/patient relationship."
In addition to Cardenas, other keynote speakers included Dr. Robin Fuchs-Young, cancer researcher at Texas A&M Health Science Center; Laura Zarate, Healing Through Art and Arte Sana; Dr. Janet Stemwedel, philosopher and blogger at San Jose State University; and Dr. Leonel Vela, dean of the Regional Academic Health Center, UT Health Science Center.
In his presentation on Wednesday, March 21, Vela discussed the need for more health care professionals in the Rio Grande Valley and how The University of Texas Health Science System-San Antonio Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen, as well as its centers in Brownsville and Edinburg, are preparing future medical staff members.
"Medicine is about team work and physicians are part of the large spectrum of health care professionals," Vela said.
Though nationally the number of students entering medical school is increasing, there are fewer places for them to train for their residencies. That makes it more difficult for health care professionals to treat ever growing communities, especially the Valley, he said.
Throughout the conference, students presented posters depicting their research in medicine and ethics. Heiny Gordon, who is pursuing his master's in nursing at UTPA and is a registered nurse working at Doctor's Hospital at Renaissance's emergency department, presented his work, "Emergency Department Violence: Nine Useful Strategies to Prevention."
Gordon said violence against health care professionals by patients they are treating is not uncommon, but steps can be taken to keep medical staff and patients safe, such as having an extra staff member accompany a nurse or other provider when they treat a patient or having security personnel increase their patrols of health care facilities.
"As nurses, we're supposed to be empathetic to the patients, but in acts of violence that changes their concentration in being empathetic to the patient," Gordon said.
The bioethics conference encouraged Gordon to continue working with his patients and making sure they and his fellow co-workers are safe.
"To be ethical, you also need to be safe," he said. "Instituting these in my workplace will control the safety and I can be more ethical and empathic to my patients."
For more information about PACE, call (956) 665-8081 or visit its website.