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The Old Guard Speaks

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Dr. Robert H. Ebert, who recently retired as dean of the Medical School, spoke before the Cambridge Forum Wednesday night about the role of the physician. Ebert, who served as dean for 12 years, examined the rewards of being a physician, in the process giving a brief history of his own life. He also focused on the conflicts inherent in the physician's job.

Among the rewards of being a physician Ebert noted the "substantial" pay, the intellectual satisfaction of working in biological science, and the enormous "spiritual and emotional reward" of helping people.

He emphasized the variety of choices of work within medicine. "There is no unemployment," he said.

Ebert offered examples of the varied directions of his own medical career. In the '40s he worked with Dr, Paul Flory, the scientist who won a Nobel prize for his work on penicillin. Ebert added that after World War II, he was stationed as a medical officer with the troops occupying Nagasaki, Japan after the atomic bomb was dropped there. "I learned first-hand of the horrors of war," he said.

The greatest personal dilemma in medicine, Ebert said, is the conflict between what a doctor should know and what it is possible to master. "One can be hopelessly out of date in a decade," he explained. That dilemma pressures medical students to specialize, Ebert said.

A particularly modern problem is the split between physicians' desires to practice the best medicine and their fears of malpractice suits--"We are a litigatious nations," Ebert said. He added that physicians, seeking to avoid litigation, often practice "defensive medicine" by ordering more tests than they would without the ever-present threat of suits.

Ebert said such "defensive medicine" is a major cause of the recent increases in health care costs.

In three months, the 63-year-old Ebert will assume the presidency of the Milbank Memorial Fund, which sponsors research on public health and the delivery of health care.

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