What are Medical Ethics?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Medical ethics is a branch of ethics which pertains to medical practice. It is sometimes viewed as part of the larger field of bioethics, which concerns ethics in the sciences, and is closely related with nursing ethics and others areas of ethics which intersect with medical practice. Going beyond the physical practice of medicine, ethics of medicine also includes business and financial ethics as well as general ethical issues such as how to treat fellow human beings when they are in need.

Patient confidentiality is part of a psychiatrist's code of medical ethics.
Patient confidentiality is part of a psychiatrist's code of medical ethics.

The practice of medicine is designed to promote wellness. One cornerstone of medical ethics is the reflection of this, in the form of ethical standards which mandate that doctors work to heal or benefit their patients, avoiding unnecessary harm and pain. However, some situations are complicated. For example, a very ill patient may or may not receive benefits from a risky, dangerous, and painful treatment. This treatment could be considered unethical in a patient with less advanced disease, but acceptable if it has the potential to save someone's life, illustrating that much of medical ethics is complicated by the specifics of individual situations.

Informed consent plays an important role in medical ethics.
Informed consent plays an important role in medical ethics.

Medical ethics also includes issues such as doctor-patient confidentiality, the need for informed consent among patients, and basic standards of behavior around patients. For example, sexual relationships between patients and doctors are often deemed unethical. Business practices such as billing, doing volunteer work, and managing medical offices, clinics, and hospitals are also encompassed in ethics of medicine.

Medical ethics includes standards in the providing of services designed to promote wellness and healing.
Medical ethics includes standards in the providing of services designed to promote wellness and healing.

Many professional medical associations have codes of ethics which they expect their members to follow. These include general issues in medical ethics as well as topics specific to their specialty. For example, the American Psychiatric Association has clear codes of ethics which pertain to dealings with psychiatric patients in addition to a more general code of medical ethics it expects its members to abide by. Failure to follow ethical standards can result in expulsion from a professional organization. Likewise, clinics, hospitals, and other facilities hold their personnel to ethical codes.

It is unethical for a doctor to discuss a patient's health records with others not involved with that patient's care.
It is unethical for a doctor to discuss a patient's health records with others not involved with that patient's care.

Often, medical ethics can become a very complicated and tangled web, especially when it comes to dealing with relatively new technology, such as assisted reproduction technology. For situations like these, ethics committees are available to weigh the specifics of particular cases, proposed research, and new developments in the field. These committees draw members from a variety of fields to ensure that their debates are well balanced and include numerous perspectives on the issue. For example, an ethics committee might include several practicing doctors, a lawyer, a bioethicist, and a member of the clergy.

Medical associations have codes of ethics which they expect their members to follow.
Medical associations have codes of ethics which they expect their members to follow.
Medical ethics includes the issue of doctor-patient confidentiality.
Medical ethics includes the issue of doctor-patient confidentiality.
Medical doctors are expected to follow a code of ethics, and must perform their duties in an ethical manner.
Medical doctors are expected to follow a code of ethics, and must perform their duties in an ethical manner.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

dbuckley212

The abortion debate continues to rage on in the nation. The ultimate issue is whether medical ethics are to be founded purely on science or on a "higher standard" of faith. Christians would compare the results of social darwinism to modern scientism in the medical community.

hangugeo112

Embryonic stem cell research is one of those shady issues which has people fighting fiercely on opposing sides concerning the ethical implications of it. Many moral authorities see it as toying with human life, and compare it to Nazi Germany. The potential for saving lives using this technology is immense, however, and perhaps it shouldn't raise so may red flags.

JavaGhoul

@BioNerd

I think that this would encompass an entirely new system of medical ethics. Often, someone trains in medicine for intense years, learning to get it all down perfectly, and then gets paid a lot by medical insurers. While learning medicine in order to be charitable and reach out to the poor is an excellent thing to do, it is not a right, but a charity. I believe that our system of healthcare in the public sector is the ideal healthcare in an imperfect world. Maybe someday conditions will be met to allow everyone to have access to good healthcare, but I don't think that day is today.

BioNerd

Healthcare should be universal. This will one day be recognized as a key medical ethic. A human's life should not be measured by how much they can or cannot pay to receive treatment. If a professional has the necessary skill needed to save a life and chooses not to do so, or to withhold necessary medication, simply because of a lack of funding, that is ethically wrong.

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