Medical Rights & Obligations: Definitions & Views

Medical Rights & Obligations: Definitions & Views
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  • 0:01 Medicine and Ethics
  • 1:00 Paternalism in Medicine
  • 2:10 Radical Individualism…
  • 3:35 Reciprocity in Medicine
  • 4:50 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 medical world comes with some difficult ethical issues. Doctors need to be able to do their jobs, but patients should feel safe. In this lesson, explore several perspectives of medical ethics, and test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Medicine and Ethics

As kids, we were often afraid to go to the doctor's office. Heck, even as adults, many of us are afraid of the doctor's office. I mean, come on, nobody likes getting shots. At least as a kid, you got a lollipop at the end. But besides the obvious injustice of denying adults candy for their bravery at the doctor's office, the medical profession is actually guided by some very strict ethical guidelines. That's very comforting to know, both for us, and for healthcare professionals.

You see, working in medicine means dealing with human lives, and the decisions you make can be pretty impactful. So healthcare professionals are guaranteed certain ethical rights, things they can do without being morally questioned but also have moral obligations, things they must do in order to behave ethically. And I'm pretty sure that lollipops are meant to be on that list.

Paternalism in Medicine

When determining what rights and obligations healthcare professionals have, historically there have been three general perspectives. The first of these is paternalism, which states that the healthcare professional has the knowledge to make medical decisions in the patient's best interest. So it's not the patient who's deciding whether or not they want a specific procedure, it's the doctor. And why? Because the doctor knows best. Who else talks like that? Anybody here have parents?

The word 'paternalism' actually means a parent-child relationship, and that's really what the relationship is here between doctor and patient. The doctor can tell a patient that they have to take a certain medicine or receive a certain procedure, and frankly, it doesn't matter how the patient feels about that. However, this doesn't mean that a doctor can just do whatever they want. While they have the right to make decisions, they also have a responsibility to always do what is ultimately in the patient's best interest; otherwise, they have failed in their duties as the knowledgeable professional.

Radical Individualism in Medicine

Paternalism was, for a time, a very common ethical belief in medicine. After all, doctors are highly trained and knowledgeable in ways that patients are not. However, this gave doctors a little more freedom than many people were comfortable with, especially since this coincided with 19th-century ideas like social Darwinism, eugenics, and institutional racism. In short, doctors thought that some people were ethnically or socially superior, and this had dangerous implications for medicine. So, paternalism fell out of vogue in the 20th century.

The opposite viewpoint from paternalism, which grew in popularity, is radical individualism. In this belief, patient's have absolute rights over their bodies. Doctors cannot take your temperature without your permission. In the modern medical world, the requirement that patients must be made fully aware of the risks and benefits of any and every procedure is called informed consent.

Radical individualism respects the rights of every person to decide their own fate and makes it an ethical obligation for doctors to respect those choices. However, this can make medicine hard. What if a patient's stubbornness interferes with the medical obligation to provide effective care? So, this is still a difficult issue.

Reciprocity in Medicine

Paternalism and radical individualism each represent pretty extreme viewpoints. So, there has to be a middle ground, right? Well, yes. There is a middle ground. Reciprocity is the belief that healthcare professionals, patients, and their families should all work together to develop the best treatment options.

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