This lesson goes over some of the major principles of medical ethics. You'll learn about principles such as nonmaleficence, beneficence, autonomy, justice, and dignity.
What Are Ethical Standards?
Just about every field has its ethical standards, principles and values that allow for things like trust, fairness, and good behavior to flourish when put into place, followed, and enforced within an organization. In the healthcare field, the ethical standards are comprised of five important ethical values. Let's take a closer look at each of these.
Nonmaleficence & Beneficence
You've probably heard of the phrase ''first do no harm, benefit only.'' Well, nonmaleficence refers to the ''do no harm'' portion. In other words, it's the duty of those involved in a person's healthcare to avoid the infliction of intentional harm.
However, this concept isn't as straightforward as it seems. For example, killing a patient intentionally is obviously harmful. But what if a patient wants to die? What if they do not want to be resuscitated when they are terminally ill with a painful disorder? Let's say they go into cardiac arrest, and based on their wishes, you do not resuscitate. In this case, you are letting the person die.
That seems like you're doing some harm. You're letting them die! However, living with a horrendous condition may cause more harm than death itself. And, in this specific case, it was the patient who made this distinction, and they are the end all, be all authority on what is greater or lesser harm for themselves so long as they are autonomous (we will get to that discussion shortly).
Closely tied into the concept of nonmaleficence is the concept of beneficence. This is the second part of the phrase ''first do no harm, benefit only.'' Beneficence refers to benefiting a patient. And that's not just limited to avoiding harm, which might be a passive process. It's more than that. Beneficence implies taking active and positive steps to help a patient, which might be steps that actively remove harm.
Let's make a clear-cut distinction between the two. Let's say that an incapacitated patient is lying in a hospital bed. By passively refraining from dousing them in gasoline, you are practicing nonmaleficence but not beneficence. In other words, you're not inflicting harm intentionally (nonmaleficence), but you're not performing an action to benefit that person either (beneficence). In order to practice beneficence, you might want to turn the patient to avoid the formation of pressure ulcers.
Another important ethical principle is autonomy, which refers to acknowledging that a person has the right to have opinions, take actions, and make decisions based on their personal values. This also means that the person:
- Must be competent enough to make a decision for themselves
- Must be fully informed of all of the risks and benefits involved
- Is free from coercion when making such a decision
As a case example, let's say that a person's religious beliefs strongly prohibit them from getting a critical surgical procedure that may save their life. The standards of medicine and the doctor's wishes to protect the patient may mean they may strongly push their medical view onto the patient to have the surgery.
However, this implies coercing or coaxing, which is the opposite of allowing a person autonomy. So, the healthcare provider's job is to discuss the risk of not having the surgery in a compassionate and respectful way. Once the patient is informed, they should be free to choose whether they wish to protect their life via the surgery or whether their religious beliefs trump all of that.
Justice, treating others equitably by distributing burdens and benefits equally among society, is also an important value in medical ethics. For example, how should scarce resources, like novel vaccines for dangerous diseases, be spread out? Should only those who can pay for these expensive vaccines get them? If a person can't pay, who should and why? Should it be distributed via a random lottery system?
Finally, there's the notion of dignity, which has no set definition and is subject to quite a bit of debate as to what it really means with respect to medical ethics. We can attempt to say that dignity refers to treating a person in such a way that makes them feel respected and in a way that maintains or improves their self-esteem. That, in and of itself, would mean all the four principles above have to be followed.
Ethical standards are principles and values that allow for things like trust, fairness, and good behavior to flourish when put into place, followed, and enforced within an organization. With respect to medical ethics, the five main principles are:
- Nonmaleficence, which is the avoidance of intentional harm
- Beneficence, which is the taking of direct and positive steps to benefit a person
- Autonomy, defined as allowing a person to have opinions, take actions, and make decisions based on their personal values
- Justice, treating others equitably by distributing burdens and benefits equally among society
- Dignity, treating a person in a respectful manner that increases their self-esteem
Medical Disclaimer: The information on this site is for your information only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice.