The Doctors, Their Letters

AROUND HARVARD one quickly discovers the power and ubiquity of the "old boy network," but events last week revealed this system in its most despicable form. Four highly esteemed doctors, all affiliated with Harvard, were found to have written letters of recommendation for a colleague, neglecting to mention that he had been convicted of rape only weeks earlier.

The omission of Dr. Arif Hussain's criminal background raises questions beyond those of medical ethics. By showing themselves more willing to bail out a friend than to obey the moral rules of their profession, the doctors called into question the legitimate uses of influence and revealed the kind of mentality which can be bred in a heavily male environment. Whether the recommending doctors felt that the nurse who was raped had "asked for it," whether they thought their colleague had "learned his lesson," whether they merely forgot to mention the conviction, or whether--as one doctor said last week--they did not consider it "directly relevant," they certainly did not regard the rape conviction with the degree of severity it ought to provoke.

Moreover, this attitude of benign neglect was not limited to the four physicians involved, as the actions taken by Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH) throughout the controversy strongly suggest. One BWH doctor observed last week that the hospital felt Hussain's trial "didn't have anything to do with his professional abilities." Furthermore, when the new controversy broke, hospital administrators not only remained silent on the issue, but ordered their staffs to avoid comment as well, hoping, as one staff member put it, that the whole thing would "blow over."

But an issue of this magnitude should not be abandoned to the prevailing winds. The negligence shown by the four recommending doctors was morally unjustifiable and neither their friendship with Hussain nor the probable negligence of Buffalo Children's Hospital should exonerate them. We urge both Harvard and the Massachusetts Medical Society--which has already begun an investigation of the incident--to censure the doctors, for only such strong action would appropriately reprimand the doctors and uphold the moral standards of the profession.

Finally, both the hospital where the doctors work and the university where they teach must take action to make sure that these abuses will not occur in the future. President Bok, to his credit, has taken the initiative and asked the Medical School faculty to draw up guidelines to prevent similar incidents from happening again. In a profession long known for arrogant confidence in its own omniscience, guidelines regarding recommendations are all the more important--to set rules to clarify the doctors' apparently murky and subjective standards. Only with the establishment of such regulations will the hospital and the University escape the kind of humiliation brought upon them by these four doctors.