Ethical Issues in Medicine & Psychology

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  • 0:00 Medicine, Psychology,…
  • 0:55 Allocation of Scarce…
  • 2:01 Behavior Control
  • 3:31 Genetics
  • 5:02 Human Experimentation
  • 6:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The world of healthcare is full of ethical issues, and they can be difficult to figure out. In this lesson, explore four major ethical issues, and then test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Medicine, Psychology, and Ethics

Sometimes, it's easy to think about ethics, or systems of morality, and imagine philosophers in rooms full of dusty books, asking esoteric questions and rambling on about whether or not we actually exist. Well, really, one of the areas where philosophy and ethics are very often applied is in human healthcare, so maybe we should be imagining a busy hospital instead. This application includes both medicine and psychology, since both are targeted at helping people live healthier lives.

Healthcare comes with a lot of ethical concerns. After all, your decisions have real-world implications and pretty dramatic ones at that. There's a lot more at stake than just a few dusty shelves of old books.

Allocation of Scarce Medical Resources

There are, obviously, many ethical issues in medicine and psychology. However, four stand out as areas of frequent debate. Let's start with resource allocation, or basically, what do you do when you have more patients than resources? Imagine that you run a hospital that is unexpectedly flooded with people. Do you have enough beds? Do you have enough doctors and medicine? Do you give some patients the best care possible while ignoring others? Or do you treat everyone only a little bit?

In general, healthcare professionals agree on rationing as the most moral response to this scenario, in which resources are distributed fairly to everyone who needs them. A fair distribution, however, does not always mean an equal one. If one patient has a paper cut and another has a concussion, the physician will give more time, attention, and medicine to the patient with the most need.

Behavior Control

Another issue that is quickly becoming more of an ethical debate in healthcare is that of behavior control, or using medical technology to manipulate behavior. Imagine a psychologist has three patients: one is mildly depressed, one has severe rage caused by hallucinations, and one is extremely shy. Theoretically, it is possible to alter all three of these conditions using medical technology, from drugs to surgeries. But is it ethical?

One of the major areas for concern here is recognizing that social values determine our ideas of proper behavior, but that doesn't mean certain behaviors are dangerous or somehow bad. For example, homosexuality was once considered to be a psychological condition that could be fixed with medicine. Nowadays, we would find it incredibly unethical to treat homosexuality as a disease or try and use science to change that about a person.

However, that patient who is experiencing rage from hallucinations? Well, in this case medication or surgery to prevent the hallucinations could lead to a higher quality of life, as well as prevent harm to others. So, there's a fine line here, and healthcare professionals try to distinguish between social norms, quality of life expectations, and actual medical conditions.


As our medical technology just keeps improving, another issue that becomes more and more relevant is that of genetics research, or the ability to manipulate genetics for medical purposes. The theories of what is possible range from manipulating the DNA of embryos and removing severe conditions like Downs' Syndrome to selecting the hair and eye color of your future children. Some people are fascinated by this idea and argue that if we can use technology to prevent disease before it even occurs, then we should. Others argue that these technologies involve messing with the basic processes of life itself, which is perhaps something humans are not meant to do.

The most relevant source of this debate comes from stem cell research. Stem cells are those that can change from one sort of cell to another, which means, theoretically, being able to grow bodily tissues and potentially cure degenerative diseases ranging from Alzheimer's to Parkinson's. However, the most effective way to extract stem cells is from human embryos and in the process, the embryo is destroyed. So, what's more ethical, saving the life of an embryo or using technology to potentially cure hundreds? It's actually a really difficult question and one that medical professionals are debating today.

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