Medical Ethics have always played a crucial role in patient and healthcare services provided by healthcare organizations, especially in the recent times. The Changes in medical ethics have advanced to an extent that some medical practitioners have faced legal convictions because of their incognizance.
Some of the instances include performing euthanasia unethically or breaching patient privacy protocol. The practitioner should be fully aware of the latest legislation to make sure they are practicing within the law set by governing bodies.
Through this article, we attempt to shed light on the aspects of medical ethics that are more relevant to general practice.
But first, let's discuss why ethics play an essential role in the medical field.
Ethics are moral codes and principles that apply to general medical practice. These codes are essential in situations where the proper course of action might not always be the preferred choice.
Recently, there was a demand for rights of patients to make their own decisions during a medical emergency. This serves as a challenge for a physicians l as patients might not agree with them all the time and may present inputs and opinions that have detrimental effects.
In such cases, if one has through the understanding of moral, medical systems, they can apply them to decide the ideal course of action.
The Four Principles of Medical Ethics
To make sure that medical practitioners make the right decision when they are facing such complicated situations, Tom Beauchamp and James Childress developed four principles of healthcare ethics in the year 1985. The four principles of medical ethics are
These approaches of the modern ethical system are easy to apply to a moral dilemma and also provide multiple perspectives to compare one’s decision. Each of the four principles of healthcare ethics has a special meaning as all of them ensure ideal patient care, safety and maintain a balanced approach.
A critical medical situation often leads to extensive discussions about what is the right action and who should decide it. This introduces the first principle of medical ethics, i.e. Autonomy.
Autonomy is considered the most important of the four principles. Autonomy in the field of medicine means that the medical professional should always respect the patient's wishes and remember that the patient has a right to maintain full control over his or her body. A medical professional can only advise what is in the best interest of the patient but in the end, the patient is free to make their own decision. The medical professional has to accept it even if it is against their personal opinions and beliefs.
The second of this principle is that whatever one does should be directly beneficial to the patient before anyone else. Any procedure or treatment that is recommended to the patient must be with an intention to provide the best care to the patient.
Some people might think that the above statement is too obvious as no healthcare professional will think otherwise, but in certain situations you can be asked or tempted to do something that might not be for the benefit of the patient for example when they are testing out a new treatment or when the relative of the patient is adamant that some other course of treatment would be beneficial for him and is not ready to take your advice.
In such cases to ensure beneficence, a medical professional should be well trained and be aware of the latest and current medical practices so that they can provide optimum care at the time of need and does not get into any dilemma.
This principle means "to not harm" and is probably considered as the best known out of the four principles. Some people say that beneficence and non-maleficence are necessarily the two sides of the same coin, as one means actions that promote the well-being of patients while the other means avoiding activities which bring about the harm of patients.
This principle ensures that the medical professional considers the wellbeing of other people before making a decision, even if the decision is made for the welfare of an individual patient.
For example, when a physician decides to stop a course of treatment for a patient as it is harming his current situation or the practitioner refuses to provide a treatment to a patient which has previously been proven to be ineffective in similar cases.
This principle states that there should always be fairness that is maintained along with equal distribution of scarce resources and new treatments in all the decisions that are made by the medical practitioners.
This principle implies that the benefits of new or experimental treatments must be available for all groups in the society. The healthcare provider must take into consideration four important criteria - the fair distribution of scarce resources, rights and obligations of the patient, competition of the resources, and legal boundaries.
For example, with the changes in the latest technology, certain people are not able to afford the latest treatment available which leads to the ethical dilemma.
A Closer Look
Even though these principles relate to each other in an excellent way and help a lot in framing one’s thought process; it is not always possible to adhere to them in every situation.
This is where ethical dilemma comes into action.
Let's take a basic example, a patient suffering from cancer that too at the last stage with minimal chances of survival has decided to opt for a costly course of chemotherapy which utilizes scarce medical resources but might improve his chances of survival.
In this situation, the doctor might lean towards respecting the choice of the patient (Autonomy) and also help him regain his health (Beneficence), but his decision may be influenced by another factor which is a fair distribution of resources (Justice).
The decision of the doctor is truly ethical only when it adheres to all four principles.