Medical ethics: a brief primer

April 4, 2011  |  General

Medical ethics is something we deal with frequently in the PICU. It may sound esoteric, but generally it isn’t. Even so, it can be complicated. Complicated or not, it’s also something all of us should know a little about. This is because, in fact, many of us will encounter its issues quite suddenly and unexpectedly with our loved ones, or even ourselves.

So what are the accepted principles of medical ethics? There are four main principles, which on the surface are quite simple. They are these:

1. Beneficence (or, only do good things)
2. Nonmaleficence (or, don’t do bad things)
3. Autonomy (or, the patient decides important things)
4. Justice (or, be fair to everyone)

Beneficence
The first of these principles, beneficence, is the straightforward imperative that whatever we do should, before all else, benefit the patient. At first glance this seems an obvious statement. Why would we do anything that does not help the patient? In reality, we in the PICU are frequently tempted to do (or asked to do by families or other physicians) things that are of marginal or even no benefit to the patient. Common examples include a treatment or a test we think is unlikely to help, but just might.

Nonmaleficence
There is a long tradition in medicine, one encapsulated in the Latin phrase primum non nocere (“first do no harm”), which admonishes physicians to avoid harming our patients. This is the principle of nonmaleficence. Again, this seems obvious. Why would we do anything to harm our patients? But let’s consider the example of tests or treatments we consider long shots — those which probably won’t help, but possibly could. It is one thing when someone asks us to mix an innocuous herbal remedy into a child’s feeding formula. It is quite another when we’re considering giving a child with advanced cancer a highly toxic drug that might treat the cancer, but will certainly cause the child pain and suffering.

Autonomy
Our daily discussions in the PICU about the proper action to take, and particularly about who should decide, often lead us directly to the third key principle of medical ethics, which is autonomy. Autonomy means physicians should respect a patient’s wishes regarding what medical care he or she wants to receive. Years ago patients tended to believe, along with their physicians, that the doctor always knew best. The world has changed since that time, and today patients have become much more involved in decisions regarding their care. This is a good thing. Recent legal decisions have emphasized the principle that patients who are fully competent mentally may choose to ignore medical advice and do (or not do) to their own bodies as they wish.

The issue of autonomy becomes much more complicated for children, or in the situation of an adult who is not able to decide things for himself. Who decides what to do? In the PICU, the principle of autonomy generally applies to the wishes of the family for their child. But what if they want something the doctors believe is wrong or dangerous? What if the family cannot decide what they want for their child? Finally, what if the child does not want what his or her parents want — at what age and to what extent should we honor the child’s wishes? As you can see, the simple issue of autonomy is often not simple at all.

Justice
The fourth key principle of medical ethics, justice, stands somewhat apart from the other three. Justice means physicians are obligated to treat every patient the same, irrespective of age, race, sex, personality, income, or insurance status.

You can see how these ethical principles, at first glance so seemingly straightforward, can weave themselves together into a tangled knot of conflicting opinions and desires. The devil is often in the details. For example, as a practical matter, we often encounter a sort of tug-of-war between the ethical principles of beneficence and nonmaleficence — the imperative to do only helpful things and not do unhelpful ones. This is because everything we do carries some risk. We have different ways of describing the interaction between them, but we often speak of the “risk benefit ratio.” Simply put: Is the expected or potential benefit to the child worth the risk the contemplated test, treatment, or procedure will carry?

The difficult situations, of course, are those painted in shades of grey, and this includes a good number of them. In spite of that, thinking about how these four principles relate to each other is an excellent way of framing your thought process.

If you are interested in medical ethics, there are many good sites where you can read more. Here is a good site from the University of Washington, here is a link to the President’s Council on Bioethics (which discusses many specific issues), and here is an excellent blog specifically about the issues of end of life care maintained by Thaddeus Pope, a law professor who is expert in the legal ramifications. If you want a really detailed discussion, an excellent standard book is Principles of Biomedical Ethics, by Beauchamp and Childress.

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1 Comment


  1. Thank you for the recommendation. Coincidentally, Beauchamp (your other recommended source) was my dissertation advisor.

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  1. The grey zone: the ethical right of parents to refuse complicated and high-risk treatments for their child | Christopher Johnson M.D. PICU Author

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