A recent report by Physicians for Human Rights ("PHR") articulates the difficult dilemma faced by physicians who serve detained immigrants.  Such physicians have a "dual loyalty" problem:

Health professionals working in detention facilities run directly under DHS oversight, report to the federal agency charged with managing health care for detainees, the ICE Health Service Corps (HSC).  Like ICE, HSC is a division of DHS, and therefore, has objectives that tend to focus on deportation and security, rather than on providing comprehensive health care to immigrants in detention.  Review of the HSC mission statement clearly demonstrates that its mandate is prone to conflict with health professionals' obligation to provide their patients with the best possible care.  The HSC website proudly proclaims: "We protect America by providing health care and public health services in support of immigration law enforcement."


Perhaps Janus, not Asclepius, is an appropriate patron deity for DHS Doctors.

A doctor's first loyalty should be to her patient.  However, there are many examples of third parties infringing on the doctor-patient relationship: insurance companies and hospital administrators being two of the most common.  In the case of detained immigrants, a doctor's loyalty to her patient may be compromised by her loyalty to her employer-in this case, the Department of Homeland Security.  The PHR report points out that this should not happen:

While the term "dual loyalty" may imply equivalence between a medical professional's loyalty to the patient and loyalty to third party interests [such as DHS], no such equivalence exists.  Ethically, with very rare and well-circumscribed exceptions, a health professional is obligated to act in the interest of the patient above all other concerns.

Great in theory, but not always easy to implement in reality.  The report offers several recommendations, including the following:

  • Require that health care professionals working in detention centers report to health organizations, such as the Department of Health and Human Services, so that they may maintain clinical independence.  They should not report to the Department of Homeland Security or to for-profit private contractors.

  • Create an independent oversight organization to monitor provision of health care in all facilities that house immigration detainees.

  • Create an ombudsman office to which detainees may easily report grievances regarding access to medical care.

  • Make the Performance Based National Detentions Standards (PBNDS) legally enforceable in all facilities that house immigration detainees.  Failure to adhere should result in contract cancellation.

DHS detains about 400,000 people each year.  The recommendations in the PHR report would help to improve medical care for these people and would also help to mitigate the "dual loyalty" problem faced by physicians in the system.  Further, PHR's recommendations do not seem particularly costly.  Indeed, the primary recommendation-that physicians working with detained immigrants report to HHS instead of DHS-should cost next to nothing.  The recommendations are worthy of consideration by DHS.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.