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Doctor, your mere presence means you are practicing medicine

On Behalf of | Jan 12, 2015 | Medical Licensing

In November and December, we discussed what constitutes unprofessional conduct. The Pennsylvania State Board of Medicine has a long list of things a doctor or surgeon can do that will risk his or her license, but we thought we would take a step back and ask a broader question:

What is the “practice of medicine”?

State lawmakers and the board have provided a definition of “medicine and surgery.” They are the “art and science of which the objectives are the cure of diseases and the preservation of the health of man, including the practice of the healing art with or without drugs.” The definition specifically excludes “healing by spiritual means or prayer.”

The question came up when we came across the case of Maryland anesthesiologist Lawrence Egbert. Egbert is an advocate of death with dignity and admits that he has been present at a number of suicides.

At one time, Egbert was associated with the Final Exit Network. The organization emphasizes on its website that it does not encourage suicide, does not provide anyone with the means to commit suicide, and, importantly, does not assist in anyone’s death. The website is also clear about the organization’s belief that competent adults with terminal illnesses, unrelenting pain, or chronic, progressive physical disabilities have the right to decide how and when they will die.

Egbert is now facing criminal charges for participating in suicides in Minnesota. In Maryland, the state Board of Medicine has revoked his medical license, saying that Egbert assisted with the suicides of six patients there in violation of the state’s professional standards.

But is it a violation? Egbert is appealing the revocation, arguing that he was present at those suicides, but he was not practicing medicine. The board itself says his involvement was limited to being present during rehearsals as well as the suicides and holding the hands of the patients as they died.

Whether those activities constitute the practice of medicine is much more than a question of semantics. The doctor’s license is at stake here. Is being in the room with someone who has chosen to die contrary to the art and science of the cure of diseases and the preservation of health? Does holding someone’s hand as she voluntarily takes her own life violate the practice of the healing art?


CBS Baltimore, “Revoked Doctor Filing Court Appeal In Assisted Suicide Case,” Jan. 9, 2015

Time, “Maryland Board Revokes Doctor’s Medical License for Involvement in Assisted Suicides,” Alexandra Sifferlin, Dec. 30, 2014

63 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 422.2 (West), via WestlawNext