Then and Now: Former CIR President Reflects on Physician Activism from the 1960s to Today

Dr. Eugene Thiessen

Dr. Eugene Thiessen has spent his career expanding the definition of physician service. After earning his MD at the University of Chicago, he trained as a surgical resident at Bellevue Medical Center in New York, served as president of CIR from 1960-1962 and continued as a welfare administrator while starting
his general practice. Dr. Thiessen was an Associate Professor of Surgery at NYU for 20 years, and later practiced in emergency medicine. He also founded SHARE, the first peer support group for women with breast cancer and ovarian cancer.

CIR Vitals spoke with Dr. Thiessen about how he became a physician activist and how he sees physicians’ roles today.

WHAT WERE CIR’S GOALS WHEN YOU WERE PRESIDENT?

We certainly were addressing the inequities of salaries and working conditions of interns and residents. We negotiated to get a better contract. But at the same time we were advocating for nurse services, better lab services, we went beyond. . . . We were interested in the health care of the patients in the hospital.

Ever since its founding in the late 1950s, and during my tenure as President in the early 1960s, “patient welfare” has been one of the core principles underlying the efforts and activities of CIR. For me—and I believe for CIR also—“patient welfare” encompasses more than just the quality of care given to the hospitalized patient. Among other principles, I believe it also stands for both universal access to affordable health care, and health care as a universal human right.

WHAT DO YOU THINK OF TODAY’S HEALTHCARE SYSTEM?

Health care is a right, not a privilege. It should be taken out of the hands of
profit-making entities. The application of health care is as much the responsibility
of physicians as the individual practice of medicine. I would like to see physicians active in the political process—not necessarily running for office but lending their professional expertise to politicians. I help my district representative in Long Island whenever I can by sending him information on health care. Physicians should be advocates not just of their own patients but of the system of health care.

WHAT DO YOU TELL A DOCTOR WHO WANTS TO GET MORE INVOLVED IN HIS COMMUNITY BUT ISN’T SURE WHERE TO START?

It’s hard to imagine that anybody who seriously considers getting involved in advocating for patient care would have difficulty finding something. Open your eyes, look around where you are, listen to the news broadcasts and what’s being said—pick out what interests you and you feel confident in.

About a month ago I heard on NPR that a group in California organized their
practice with an emphasis on prevention. They had a clinic and they would go out to their diabetic patients to make sure they didn’t have any lesions or infections on their feet—they’re really making preventive medicine an essential part of the practice. They were able to cut down on expensive hospitalizations resulting from lack of care and come in under budget.

My big complaint is that politicians don’t want to cut the cost of health care delivery; they want to reduce the amount that the government pays out. So the costs will stay the same if the system continues as it is now and there will be a shift on the payment from the government to the individuals. What we really need to do is figure out how to reduce the cost of health care delivery.

HOW DO YOU SEE THE OCCUPY MOVEMENT?

It is my belief that the OWS movement’s most important contribution is not the
development of a policy or political agenda; it is the raising of awareness and
discussion about fundamental political, economic and social relationships and inequities in our society. The “movement” isn’t providing answers—it’s asking questions; it’s asking the “whys”.

After retiring from clinical medicine in 1999, Dr. Eugene Thiessen continued as a lecturer in the Department of Preventive Medicine at SUNY-Stony Brook. In 2008, Dr. Thiessen received the “Distinguished Service Award” from the University of Chicago in “recognition of honor brought to the University through teaching, research, and community service.”

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