Medicolegal Issues

I, Intern


Internship is a stressful and life-altering experience. Demands from patients, consulting staff, and paperwork can dehumanize the new physician and make him or her feel like an automaton. The constant exigency of being an intern is further compounded by the increasing use of algorithms and computers. Guidelines for care have existed since the Hermetic books of Thoth in ancient Egypt, but strict “cookbook” medicine limits the intern’s decision-making and individuality. Pressure for electronic record-keeping and redundant documentation further reduce the new physician into not much more than a data entry-and-retrieval terminal. With the intern spending more time with patient records than actual patients, the physician-patient relationship invariably suffers as the intern becomes a small part of the machinery. Consequently, house-staff are constantly searching for a conceptual framework to better understand and cope with their unusual existence.

Isaac Asimov, the visionary science fiction writer and one-time biochemistry professor at Boston University School of Medicine, wrote an entire corpus of work around robots and the three “Laws of Robotics” starting in the 1940s.1 It seems the laws of robotics might also apply to interns as the Three Laws of “Internotics” (original text in parenthesis):

  • First Law: An intern (robot) may not injure a patient (human being), or, through inaction, allow a patient (human being) to come to harm.
  • Second Law: An intern (robot) must obey orders given it by attendings (human beings) except when such orders would conflict with the First Law.*
  • Third Law: An intern (robot) must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Ten years after the creation of these laws, Asimov developed a “Zeroth” Law: An intern (robot) may not injure humanity, or through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

The First Law

Isolated interpretation of the First Law is the modus operandi of robots and interns. This law is a re-wording of the basic tenet of medicine: First do no harm, or primum non nocere as quoted from Hippocrates in Epidemics. On its surface, the First Law may seem easy for the intern to interpret and follow. However, when the patient’s own perception of benefit and harm deviates from the established norms in medicine, the intern is faced with dilemma of patient autonomy versus beneficence. This may not be a novel phenomenon in the modern consumer-based healthcare system, as Will Mayo, MD, from our own institution once said during a speech at Rush Medical College in 1910: “The best interest of the patient is the only interest to be considered.”

The Second Law

The Second Law explicitly states that the intern must follow the orders of the attending physician, but much rests in the intern’s additional obligation to reconcile obligatory recommendations with their own knowledge and patients’ idiosyncrasy. This may quickly become problematic for the intern, as few orders in modern medicine are considered absolutely risk-free.

The intern must undertake two levels of risk-benefit analysis: They must first determine what type of harm the patient faces in the setting of inaction—as spelled out by the First Law—if the attending’s orders were not carried out; he then must balance such hypothetical harm with the risks associated with the attendings orders of action. If such analysis were to favor inaction, to question the attending’s order is to challenge the attending’s own interpretation of the First Law and to risk the intern’s own existence (Third Law).

Therefore, the best solution for the intern is often to not question whether such order is necessary, but to do whatever possible to protect the patient. An example might be a consultant’s request for a CAT scan in a patient at high risk for contrast-induced nephropathy. In such a case, N-acetylcystein, adequate hydration or urine alkalinization may provide optimal protection against nephropathy. As such, the intern fulfills his or her obligations to the First and Second Laws without testing the limits imposed by the Third.

The Third Law

Much of the practice of—if not the principle of—internship is a violation of the Third Law. Excessive sleepiness and stressors may lead to medical errors, substance abuse, and traffic accidents.2 Work-hour restrictions may alleviate this condition, but can also erode the already limited patient-physician relationship. Further, certain attending physicians may denigrate the performance of the intern, leading to self doubt, lower self esteem, and mental anguish.

Similarly, interaction with certain patients may challenge the intern’s physical or mental well-being. As a result, the intern juxtaposes the new physician’s self-image of competency against the hierarchical stereotype of the rookie. The Third Law allows an opportunity for the intern to be associated with the proud heritage of the caduceus. However, as most interns soon learn, an intern can possibly best ensure his or her well-being and ascent to the next level when the Third Law is not cited as regularly as the first two laws.

The Zeroth Law

The Zeroth Law may be the most challenging law for both robots and interns. While robots and interns are both proficiently trained in serving individual humans, neither positronic programming nor medical education clearly establishes how this leads to the service of humanity.

If humanity is to be defined as the collection of individuals, principles in doctoring of the individual cannot be easily duplicated onto a population. This can be demonstrated through the continuously escalating medical expenditures in the setting of limited resources. For example, if a patient presents with “atypical” chest pain, a diligent medical graduate might order a set of laboratory studies and an electrocardiogram to rule out on-going myocardial infarction despite a low likelihood of abnormality. The slightest normal variation may then involve, by the First or Second Law, observation, stress testing, or cardiac catheterization.

Even though the current economic and legal systems allow for such shotgun approach of affordable technology, such application of the First Law onto humans as a collective will exhaust the population of its limited resources and utterly defy the Zeroth Law.

Alternatively, if humanity is to mean what constitutes each person’s individuality, argument involving maleficence and beneficence must give way to autonomy in the presentation, diagnosis, and treatment of disease, despite what the intern or attending physician perceive as benefits and harm. This obviously violates the First Law in the most fundamental level. However, different from the other laws, the Zeroth Law is not prefaced with the need to comply with the other Three Laws.

Interns can and often do feel dehumanized, whether from loss of decision-making role, from lack of sleep, or as a psychological tool of survival against the rigors of life and death in the hospital. Sometimes even a perfectly beneficent act violates the First Law at a later time and haunts the practitioners. Asimov himself received surgery-related transfusion with the best intention of his treating physicians and surgeons, yet he contracted transfusion-related HIV and died years later of AIDS complications.3

While the Three Laws create a framework of the intern’s existence, it can never create the ideal intern with both the competency of the attending and frailty of the patients. The Laws of Robotics—and Internotics—remind us that just as Asimov’s “Bicentennial man” wanted to transform from robot to human, we want our interns to finish their training more human, not less so.4,** TH

*This makes the assumption that most attendings are humans in the context of this discussion—a hypothesis only. **Dr. Hu was recently a medical intern for Dr. Newman. None of the original Three Laws were violated during the course of their relationship.

Jamie Newman, MD, FACP, is the physician editor of The Hospitalist, senior associate consultant, Hospital Internal Medicine, and assistant professor of internal medicine and medical history, Mayo Clinic College of Medicine at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, Rochester, Minn. Dr. Hu works in the Departments of Internal Medicine and Neurology, Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, Rochester, Minn.


  1. Asimov, I. I, Robot. London: Grafton Books; 1968.
  2. Barger LK, Cade BE, Ayas NT, et al. Extended work shifts and the risk of motor vehicle crashes among interns. N Engl J Med. 2005;352:125-134.
  3. Asimov I, Asimov, JJ. Isaac Asimov: It’s Been a Good Life. New York: Prometheus; 2002.
  4. Asimov, I. The Bicentennial Man and Other Stories. New York:Doubleday and Co; 1976.

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