What is medical ethics, anyway?
History of Medical Ethics
You may have heard of the Hippocratic Oath, which is thought to be written by the ancient Greek natural philosopher Hippocrates. New doctors take this oath as a promise that they will practice medicine responsibly, sparing life when they can instead of harming people. This is one of the basic principles of medical ethics – a doctor’s job is to help and heal, not hurt. But medical ethics emerged globally, not just in Greece.
In fact, a ninth-century Islamic physician named Ishaq ibn Ali al-Ruhawi wrote one of the first comprehensive books on medical ethics. It was called Ethics of a Physician, and in it, he discussed the way doctors should be tried and punished if they mistreated patients. Ethics of a Physician was one of the original sources of modern-day malpractice laws. Christian and Jewish thinkers in different parts of the world also produced work on medical ethics around the same time.
This timeline may surprise you: isn’t medical treatment a 20th century development? No! Though there were no antibiotics or modern-day medical tools a thousand years ago, people still tried to practice medicine, and doctors studied the human body in order to learn how to heal people. Medical ethics has been around much longer than modern-day medicine has.
Principles of Medical Ethics
Medical ethics isn’t black and white: people argue about it all the time (euthanasia, also called assisted suicide, is a source of heated disagreements in the field of medical ethics). However, you can understand medical ethics through some general principles on which most people agree.
Medical professionals should protect a patient’s autonomy – his or her personal decisions – as completely as possible. Doctors make recommendations, but in the end, the patient has the final say. Autonomy gets complicated when conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease inhibit patients’ autonomy.
Some have argued that beneficence is the only principle of medical ethics. “Beneficence” simply means “good will” – a beneficent professional works to preserve and improve a patient’s health. Some people argue that autonomy and beneficence aren’t really compatible: if a doctor knows that a patient will suffer if he or she doesn’t take a certain medication, but the patient does not want to take it, what should be done? The patient’s autonomy contradicts the doctor’s beneficence.
Physician-patient confidentiality is protected by the law just as malpractice (a breach of beneficence) is penalized by it. Even under oath in court, a doctor must not reveal confidential conversations he or she has had with the patient. It would be illegal to reveal them. The doctor-patient relationship is sacred in this way.
Hopefully, this blog post has demystified a few of the ideas related to medical ethics. In many of our programs at ACHT, you’ll learn more about medical ethics, so feel free to contact us and ask about our medical ethics-related classes!