Medical ethics in the office should not be a private matter

Medical ethics has properly gained a foothold in the public square. There is a national conversation about euthanasia, stem cell research, fertilization and embryo implantation techniques, end-of-life care, prenatal diagnosis of serious diseases, defining death to facilitate organ donation, cloning and financial conflicts of interest. Nearly every day, we read (or click) on a headline highlighting one of these or similar ethical controversies. These great issues hover over us.

We physicians face ethical dilemmas every day in the mundane world of our medical practices. They won’t appear in your newspapers or pop up on your smart phones, but they are real and they are important. Here is a sampling from the everyday ethical smorgasbord that your doctor faces. How would you act under the following scenarios?

  • A physician has one appointment slot remaining on his schedule. Two patients have called requesting this same day appointment. The first patient who called has no insurance and owes the practice money. The second patient has medical insurance coverage. Neither patient is seriously ill. Who should get the appointment?
  • Two hours before a doctor is to see a patient, her husband calls to relate private information that he fears the patient will not share with the physician. Should the physician disclose this conversation to the patient? What is the risk if she discovers at a later time that a confidential conversation occurred?
  • A patient has been non-compliant with medical care. He has missed appointments and does not take his medication reliably. The physician is contacted by a local emergency room after the patient arrives there for a medical evaluation. Can the doctor ethically decline to treat this patient who has repeatedly rejected the physician’s advice?
  • Many physicians dispense medication samples to their patients. Is this practice ethical in that it raises drug prices for everyone since drug companies must fund these giveaways?
  • An attorney contacts a physician to testify against a fellow doctor who is accused of committing medical malpractice. The physician and the accused doctor both work in a small community hospital. The facts suggest that a medically negligent act has occurred. Is the physician ethically obligated to testify against his colleague?
  • A cardiologist decides not to accept smokers in his practice as he views this behavior as a direct attack on his medical treatment and strategy. All smokers in his practice are notified that if they do not quit within 6 months that they will need to select another physician. The cardiologist states he will actively counsel and treat all smokers on the available options for nicotine addiction. Can this physician ethically dismiss smokers from his practice who can’t or won’t quit?
  • A patient asks a doctor to fill out a temporarily disability form for back pain present for 2 weeks prior to the office visit. During this time, the patient did not seek any medical care. Is it ethical for the doctor to sign off on this request?

While none of the examples above will make the front page of your morning newspapers, they are newsworthy. They are under the radar, but need to be exposed. While the public square is crowed with the monumental ethical controversies of the day, we need to reserve a small corner there for everyday ethics.  Ethics in the office should not be a private matter.

Michael Kirsch is a gastroenterologist who blogs at MD Whistleblower.

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