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Twenty-first-century physicians face novel ethical dilemmas that can be perplexing and emotionally draining. For example, electronic medical records, handheld personal devices, and provision of care by interdisciplinary teams all hold the promise of more coordinated and comprehensive care, but also raise new concerns about confidentiality, appropriate boundaries of the doctor–patient relationship, and responsibility. Chapter 1 puts the practice of medicine into a professional and historical context. The current chapter presents approaches and principles that physicians can use to address the ethical issues they encounter in their work. Physicians make ethical judgments about clinical situations every day. Traditional professional codes and ethical principles provide instructive guidance for physicians but need to be interpreted and applied to each situation. Physicians need to be prepared for lifelong learning about ethical issues and dilemmas as well as about new scientific and clinical developments. When struggling with difficult ethical issues, physicians may need to reevaluate their basic convictions, tolerate uncertainty, and maintain their integrity while respecting the opinions of others. Discussing perplexing ethical issues with other members of the health care team, ethics consultation services, or the hospital ethics committee can clarify issues and reveal strategies for resolution, including improving communication and dealing with strong or conflicting emotions.


Several approaches may be useful for resolving ethical issues. Among these approaches are those based on ethical principles, virtue ethics, professional oaths, and personal values. These various sources of guidance encompass precepts that may conflict in a particular case, leaving the physician in a quandary. In a diverse society, different individuals may turn to different sources of moral guidance. In addition, general moral precepts often need to be interpreted and applied in the context of a particular clinical situation. When facing an ethical challenge, physicians should articulate their concerns and reasoning, discuss and listen to the views of others involved in the case, and call on available resources as needed. Through these efforts, physicians can gain deeper insight into the ethical issues they face and often can reach mutually acceptable resolutions to complex problems.


Ethical principles can serve as general guidelines to help physicians determine the right thing to do.

Respecting Patients

Physicians should always treat patients with respect, which entails understanding patients’ goals, communicating effectively, obtaining informed and voluntary consent, respecting informed refusals, and protecting confidentiality. Different clinical goals and approaches are often feasible, and interventions result in both benefit and harm. Individuals differ in how they value health and medical care and how they weigh the benefits and risks of medical interventions. Generally, the values and informed choices of patients should be respected.


Physicians should discuss the goals of care with patients, as well as relevant and accurate information about diagnosis, current clinical circumstances, ...

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