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.