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If I Betray These Words

Moral Injury in Medicine and Why It's So Hard for Clinicians to Put Patients First

If I Betray These Words Buy Now
Format Audiobook Hardcover Ebook Paperback
ISBN 978-1-58642-356-8 978-1-58642-354-4 978-1-58642-355-1 978-1-58642-391-9
Published Apr 4, 2023
Imprint Steerforth Press
Biography & Autobiography - Medical (incl. Patients) Biography & Memoir Wellness

An incredibly important and captivating book for patients, families, and clinicians detailing how we’re all hurt by corporate medicine

“Wendy Dean diagnoses the dangerous state of our healthcare system, illustrating the thumbscrews applied to medical professionals by their corporate overlords… Required reading for all stakeholders in healthcare.” — Danielle Ofri, MD, PhD, author of When We Do Harm: A Doctor Confronts Medical Error

Offering examples of how to make medicine better for the healers and those they serve, If I Betray These Words profiles clinicians across the country who are tough, resourceful, and resilient, but feel trapped between the patient-first values of their Hippocratic oath and the business imperatives of a broken healthcare system.

Doctors face real risks when they stand up for their patients and their oath; they may lose their license, their livelihood, and for some, even their lives.

There’s a growing sense, referred to as moral injury, that doctors have their hands tied – they know what patients need but can’t get it for them because of constraints imposed by healthcare systems run like big businesses.

Workforce distress in healthcare—moral injury—was a crisis long before the COVID-19 pandemic, but COVID highlighted the vulnerabilities in our healthcare systems and made it impossible to ignore the distress, with 1 in 5 American healthcare workers leaving the profession since 2020, and up to 47% of U.S. healthcare workers now planning to leave their positions by 2025.

If I Betray These Words confronts the threat and broken promises of moral injury – what it is; where it comes from; how it manifests; and who’s fighting back against it. We need better healthcare—for patients and for the workforce. It’s time to act.


Ably humanizes modern, troubled physicians and rightly recognizes an important cause of their suffering.

--The Wall Street Journal

A fierce denunciation of American medicine in which physicians are the heroes—mostly… An expert bottoms-up examination of our diseased health care system."

--Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

This is an important call to action.”


This book is great for anyone working with patients, from nurses and doctors to health care and hospital administrators. It puts a spotlight on the problem of moral injury and how to rectify it.

--Library Journal

The book should be read not only by physicians, but also by other healthcare professionals and, perhaps more importantly, by people involved with the management of healthcare organizations.”

--Journal of Pediatric Rehabilitation Medicine

This is a great story of an adventurous and wide-ranging doctor dedicated to bringing the human into medicine. Having felt the whip of money and ‘administrators,’ in both large institutions and small hospitals, she and Simon Talbot moved away from calling doctors’ difficulties 'burnout' — thus blaming doctors — to 'moral injury' —like soldiers floundering under unjust orders. A brilliant, expansive book.”

--Samuel Shem, MD, DPhil, Professor in Medicine at NYU Medical School, author of The House of God and Man's 4th Best Hospital

A manifesto for our times! Wendy Dean diagnoses the dangerous state of our healthcare system, illustrating the thumbscrews applied to medical professionals by their corporate overlords. By making it impossible to do the right thing for patients, the profit-hungry system casually gouges the moral fiber of healthcare workers, threatening patient safety. Luckily, Dean lays out a path forward. Required reading for all stakeholders in healthcare."

--Danielle Ofri, MD, PhD, author of When We Do Harm: A Doctor Confronts Medical Error

All good physicians embrace their role as ‘Chief Story Teller,’ explaining to patients and their families the meaning of symptoms, diagnostic tests and proposed treatments. Wendy Dean weaves together the stories of 13 healthcare clinicians who have grappled with moral injury resulting from the system in which they are forced to work, and also offers solutions. A brilliantly conceived and executed masterpiece.”

--Thom Mayer, MD, Medical Director of the NFL Players Association

I was viscerally moved by this book. Although written by and about the challenges facing physicians in the civilian healthcare system, I shared many similarly exasperating experiences during my military medical career. Wendy Dean opens the door for the layman to see how physically taxing and mentally draining the practice of medicine can be, while allowing physician readers to recognize themselves in the scenarios she depicts. Regardless of where you stand, you need to read this book. Trust me. I’m a doctor.”

-- Joseph Caravalho, Jr., MD, Major General, US Army (Retired), and President and CEO of the Henry M. Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Military Medicine

Wendy Dean offers a stunning portrayal of the corrosive effects of valuing profits over people. Medicine is sick and the situation more dire than most realize, but Dean’s examples of visionary leadership inspire hope for a healthier future. Written by the expert on moral injury in medicine, this book is a critical read for all in healthcare."

--Lydia Dugdale, MD, author of The Lost Art of Dying: Reviving Forgotten Wisdom, and Director of the Center for Clinical Medical Ethics at Columbia University


Author’s Note The deadline for choosing a title for this book arrived unexpectedly as I was deep in writing chapter 6, which is about a doctor who takes his own life. In a flurry of communications with the publisher and editor that grew more frantic by the hour, we tried to distill the essence of the work to a word or two. The collected stories deserved exactly the right title, but despair about a flurry of imperfect ideas melded with the grief I was feeling about the character in chapter 6, and I was lost.

As I often do when stuck in a morass, I paused and returned to the source document, so to speak — to the oath we take as physicians, in its many forms. This oath represents what each of us believes is our duty to society in joining this profession and embarking on a lifetime of tending to strangers in their moments of greatest vulnerability and need. It is the commitment that calls us to be our best selves.

I read the Declaration of Geneva of the World Medical Association, the Oath of the Healer, the American Medical Association Code of Medical Ethics, the Osteopathic Oath, the Maimonides Prayer, and many versions of the Hippocratic Oath. Similar themes ran through them all: gratitude toward teachers, a commitment to lifelong learning, an obligation to nurture the next generation, selflessness, one’s duty to patients above all else, honesty, humility, confidentiality, love. But when I discovered a 2010 translation of the Hippocratic Oath by Amelia Arenas, published in Boston University’s journal Arion, I found the title.

This version of the oath echoes the themes of all the rest, but the last lines took my breath away:

I pray that the attention I give to those who put themselves in my hands be rewarded with happiness. And in honor of the knowledge I’ve received from my teachers, I swear to care for anyone who suffers, prince or slave.

If I ever break this oath, let my gods take away my knowledge of this art and my own health.

Here speaks a citizen, a servant of people. May I be destroyed if I betray these words.

The covenant we make is not simply about how we will do a job, it is also about who we will be when we don the mantel of “physician.” It proscribes our conduct, calibrates our moral compass, and entwines both with our identity. Betraying these words, then, forsakes our identity, which can unmoor us and threaten our dissolution.

In standing up to moral injury and fighting for our oaths, we are fighting for our patients as if our lives depended on it. Because, figuratively, and too often literally, they do.

I am humbled by and grateful to all the medical professionals who have spoken up against their destruction, and to those who find the courage to do so in the future.

Introduction – What Beer and Modern Healthcare Have in Common

Dr. Mike Hilden answered the knock on his front door in the fall of 2012 to find two Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents waiting to speak with him. The FBI hadn’t come to Carlisle, a quiet college town of twenty thousand people in central Pennsylvania, for drug dealers or old-school racketeers. They were talking to doctors, nurses, and administrators at the local hospital, tipped off by whistleblowers who leveled fraud allegations at Health Management Associates (HMA), the fourth-largest hospital corporation in the US, and the owner of Carlisle Regional Medical Center.

Dr. Hilden had been a hospitalist at Carlisle Regional for more than a decade, since before the board of the nonprofit community hospital sold out to HMA. Now it was one of seventy-one hospitals in a nationwide for-profit enterprise that was being accused of coercing physicians to forsake their medical judgment — to hospitalize patients who didn’t meet insurance criteria, to order more tests than their conditions required, and to keep them in the hospital longer than necessary — to increase profits.

Carlisle, established by Scots Irish in the mid-eighteenth century, had an early history fraught with conflict. The Carlisle Barracks, now home to the United States Army War College, served as supply headquarters in the Revolutionary War. George Washington reviewed troops there before sending them west to put down the Whiskey Rebellion, and downtown buildings still bear the scars of a three-day occupation by Robert E. Lee during the Civil War. But since stopping the northward advance of the Confederate army, the town had been a quiet place. Unfortunately, though the community didn’t know it yet, the fight in healthcare over profits, patients, and physician autonomy, waged by ever-larger corporations, was coming to them.

A key figure in the FBI investigation was someone few people in Carlisle had ever heard of: HMA board chairman William Schoen. Just a few months earlier, at the company’s annual shareholders’ meeting at a Ritz-Carlton resort in Naples, Florida, Schoen defended himself against a few shareholders agitating for his ouster. The disgruntled shareholders claimed that HMA failed to hold its executives to the same standards as competing corporations, and that its insufficient attention to compliance with federal regulations put the corporation at risk.

Under Schoen, HMA’s only criterion for executive bonuses was a single financial measure: EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization), a measure that isn’t one of the generally accepted accounting principles used by publicly traded companies in financial statements. Moreover, most large, publicly traded healthcare corporations also included at least one quality indicator, such as readmission rates, hospital-acquired infections, or patient satisfaction, in bonus calculations. Charlie Munger, vice president of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, in his 2020 address to the Daily Journal shareholders meeting, referred to EBITDA as “bullshit earnings,” a measure so manipulable it deserves little credence. Shareholders were concerned that HMA executives were manipulating the numbers to line their own pockets rather than creating real value for investors, while a weak board, whose members were handpicked by Schoen and secure in their tenure, was doing nothing about it.

During his time as chief executive officer and board chairman, Schoen had grown the organization from a small regional player to a Fortune 500 company with national reach and billions in revenue. His responsibility was to his shareholders, not to clinicians, and not to patients, who were both free to go elsewhere if they didn’t like the conditions at his hospitals. Schoen believed that his compensation, and that of his senior team, was hardly out of line with their success, or with their peers in the industry.

At the meeting, HMA’s vice president of financial relations at the time, John Merriwether, denied the critics’ contentions: “To imply that we don’t take quality as seriously as we should, that’s not fair. If you don’t provide good quality care, you won’t have good financial performance.” But HMA specifically targeted markets where it knew there was little or no competition, so patients at HMA hospitals could not vote with their feet or their healthcare dollars. The Center for American Progress found that rural emergency rooms in hospitals like those HMA acquired were, on average, twenty-two miles from the next nearest emergency room, a distance that could mean the difference between life and death.

Ultimately, the shareholders weren’t swayed by the critics. Schoen, the board, and the compensation structure all remained unchanged. But the Health Care Fraud Prevention and Enforcement Action Team, a joint effort by the US Department of Justice and the US secretary of health and human services, was just getting started with HMA. Between 2009 and 2011, whistleblowers filed eight lawsuits against the corporation, alleging fraud. Agents from the FBI and Department of Justice spent two years talking with hundreds of employees across at least eight states, and by the time the investigation was over, HMA agreed to pay a $260 million settlement for forcing doctors, under threat of losing their jobs, to provide unnecessary care against their best judgment and training. Dr. Hilden was vindicated, but he and his partners, like so many other physicians in the grip of increasingly corporatized healthcare, were looking for new jobs — ones where they could practice medicine as they had been trained to do, not as corporate growth plans told them they must.

About the Authors

Wendy Dean

Wendy Dean, MD is the President and co-founder of Moral Injury of Healthcare, a nonprofit organization focused on alleviating workforce distress. A seminal article that she co-authored with Simon Talbot, MD for STATNews in July of 2018 began the conversation about moral injury in healthcare. Dr. Dean has practiced as a psychiatrist and an emergency room physician, and is an expert in hand and face transplants, and the ethics of medical innovations.

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