Health care in the 21st century is governed by a confusing array of rules, regulations, laws and ethical standards. Issues that involve confidentiality, informed consent and patient relationships can appear out of nowhere, even when health care workers have the best of intentions. What’s legal today might not be considered ethical, and there is the ever-present threat of being sued for negligence and malpractice. There are unresolved issues around doctor assisted dying that have yet to be worked out, while medical procedures considered ethical for adults might not be seen as ethical for minors.
Here are the top five ethical issues that health care managers of today and tomorrow will be facing in the course of delivering responsible and compassionate patient care.
1. Patient Confidentiality
Information about a patient’s medical condition is considered private. Violating a patient’s confidentiality can hurt the patient and have legal and ethical consequences for the health care worker. The Health Insurance Portability and Accounting Act (HIPAA) has drawn up specific laws that govern the release of a patient’s medical information. These laws state clearly the type of patient information that can be released to third parties and which information must be kept confidential. The laws also set forth who can see the information and who cannot. Although these laws appear straightforward, there are grey areas such as when withholding information about a patient’s condition would be unethical because it could harm the patient or someone else.
2. Patient Relationships
Health care providers are ethically prohibited from entering into personal relationships with patients in the course of providing treatment. Violating this policy, especially if it involves a sexual relationship, can result in losing a license to practice, in being sued and in being forbidden to provide any kind of healthcare services in the future. Entering into a sexual relationship with a patient is considered a serious violation of that patient’s rights and an act of misconduct and abuse of power on the part of the health care worker. When under medical care, a patient is considered vulnerable and unable to defend or protect themselves. Even the appearance of a sexual relationship with a patient can have serious consequences for a health care practitioner.
3. Malpractice And Negligence
Health care providers are always at risk for being charged with malpractice and negligence. A patient who is harmed by defective medical equipment or products, injured in the course of a medical treatment or placed in danger because of medication errors can sue to recover their losses. Patients can also sue when health care providers fail to provide a critically needed treatment or service. Due to the ever-present threat of litigation, health care providers must carefully cover all the bases in the course of providing patient care.
4. Informed Consent
In order for any medical treatment to be considered legal, the patient must first provide the health care worker with an informed consent. Unless a patient provides informed consent for a procedure, that procedure can considered an assault or even a homicide if the patient were to die as a result of treatment. Informed consent means that a patient has had all of their questions answered and freely agrees to a treatment or procedure with full knowledge of the risks, benefits and possible consequences. Informed consent also means that patients are informed about other options as well as about the option of doing nothing.
5. Issues Related To Physician Assisted Suicide (PAD)
Most health care professionals are aware that physician assisted dying is already legal in states like California and Oregon. Support for PAD is growing in momentum as the baby boom generation gets older. Surveys show that roughly 50 percent of doctors now support some form of physician assisted dying. These days, physicians are broadening the concept of “Do no harm” to include providing relief for those who are dying and suffering as a result of a fatal illness.
We are moving into an era that will provide increasing options for medical care. Innovative technologies, cutting-edge medical procedures and state-of-the-art treatments are designed to give people longer and more productive lives. But as we move forward, concerns about the future of medical care and its effect on the patients it was designed to treat will become increasingly important.