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What are medical ethics?

medical ethicsIf you’re planning a career in medicine, knowing your way around medical ethics is as important as knowing your way around the body. Read on to find out more.

What are ethics?

Ethics are a set of beliefs about right and wrong. They aren’t the same as laws, which are strict rules, although most laws are based on ethics. For example, there are laws against theft because ethics say that stealing is wrong. Ethics play a part in every aspect of life, but are particularly important in medicine.

How do they apply to medicine?

The idea of specific medical ethics was first summarised in about the 4th century BC by Hippocrates in the Hippocratic Oath – which doctors still take today. In simple terms, the Hippocratic Oath says that doctors should always work to protect their patients from harm. This covers a lot of areas, but in modern medicine ethics are often broken down into four main principles.

  • Autonomy means respect for the patient. Where possible, doctors should take the wishes of the patient into consideration when deciding on treatments, and should never withhold information from them or share confidential information with others.
  • Beneficence means acting in the patient’s best interests. For example, doctors should never perform an operation where the risk of killing a patient is higher than the chance of curing them.

  • Non-maleficence means never doing anything that intentionally harms a patient, such as deliberately giving them an overdose.
  • Justice means that all patients should be treated equally, so it is wrong to refuse to treat someone because they are of a certain race, for example. Justice also means that doctors should think about how what they do affects society as a whole.

What are ethical problems?

Ethical principles are normally easy to understand, but can get complicated around issues like euthanasia, abortion and stem cell research, when there is a conflict between different principles. For example, a patient might have an incurable disease and asks their doctor to stop the treatment which is keeping them alive – which causes a conflict between autonomy and non-maleficence. Ethical questions often cause passionate debate, but a doctor must always know and obey the laws of the country they work in, no matter what their personal beliefs are.

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