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Robert and Diana Capehart

Robert and Diana Capehart

Originally published in the College of Medicine Magazine Summer 2022

Alumnus Establishes Professorship for Medical Ethics

In his 50-plus years of practicing medicine, Robert Capehart, M.D. made many decisions about patient care. Some were simple, like black or white, others more difficult and mired deeper in gray areas. Those gray area questions would often lead him to examine his beliefs, his options and his obligations.

During his long career, Capehart was passionate about educating young physicians and medical students not only in clinical medicine but also in medical ethics and humanities. Now retired, he has had time to reflect on his career and how he approached situations and decisions, comparing and contrasting them to the environment, attitudes and morals that new doctors face today. The result of his introspection is the creation of a $2 million endowed professorship for medical ethics at the OU College of Medicine.

"In today's climate, there are many medical issues and ethical issues that those in the medical field are encountering - be that as a physician, nurse or other provider," Capehart said. "The OU College of Medicine did not have a professorship or program directly pointed toward medical/ethical problems, and with the medical school being a training center, I feel that this professorship will stimulate research on the ethics of human research, clinical practice, public health, and medical innovation, in addition to exposing students to these issues early in their training."

Physicians are required to make challenging judgment calls and hold themselves to high medical ethics standards, which minimizes errors and fosters trust, accountability, and respect between physicians and their patients, Capehart said.

"While making these challenging judgement calls, the physician must act within several strictures," he said. "Number one: the legal stricture, the law, may dictate one way or another. They must decide what is acceptable and appropriate care from a medical viewpoint, and then what is acceptable from the patient's viewpoint.

"You also have strictures within the hospital. The hospital may, in some cases, dictate what can happen in a medical situation. Finally, you have insurance companies, third-party carriers who may say 'no, we won't do this or that' and they work to make a decision go another way because of money," he added.

"All these things don't always flow in the same direction. Those parties are often obtuse to each other. Still, any decision has to be in the strictures of what is legal. Then the decision comes back to the physician. … What does he/she do?" One of Capehart's main goals in establishing the professorship is to simply call attention to an area that he felt was not being adequately addressed. "You need to have a very open discussion in order to come to a conclusion that is correct in a legal fashion, and in a medical fashion and in an ethical fashion," he said. "It's a tough area to be in because there are so many conflicting forces that are pulling in different ways."

He also wants to take ethics discussions into the public arena. "I read a story about a physician in another state who said that if his patients did not take the vaccine recommended by the government, he would not see them as a patient any longer," Capehart said. "Is that ethical? I don't have an answer and you don't have an answer, but it's something we ought to have an answer to, and the only way you're going to arrive at it is to have a discussion. There just needs to be more discussion and more involvement."

The Capehart Endowed Chair for Medical Ethics will be established as part of the planned legacy of Capehart and his wife, Diana, a former surgical nurse. They live in Tulsa.

Capehart is a 1965 graduate of the OU College of Medicine. During his internship at St. John's Medical Center in Tulsa, he decided to focus on colorectal surgeries. He was instrumental in building Tulsa Medical College, which became the OU-TU School of Community Medicine. He served as the first chair of the Department of Family and Community Medicine and the first program director for the family practice residency.