The Canterbury v. Spence case brings our attention to the ethical issues of risk disclosure of a medical procedure. This type of case involves and compares the importance of several pillars of ethics: autonomy, benevolence and malevolence. There seems to be a question that is very difficult to answer, and may differ on a case-to-case basis: Does, “every human being of adult years and sound mind has a right to determine what shall be done with his own body…” (an issue of autonomy) trump a doctor acting in the patient’s best interest and avoiding harm to the patient (benevolence/malevolence)? (https://ereserves.library.emory.edu/reservesViewer.php?reserve=563719) It’s convenient to believe that the legal system keeps people on a moral path and helps people make decisions that are ethically sound and in the best interest of society as a whole. But in some cases, fear of the law may cause more issues than it does good.
Risk of a procedure is not the only type of information that doctors potentially keep from their patients. There is also the issue of disclosing errors that may have occurred during the process of a patient’s care. According to an article in Ghana Medical Journal (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2709172/) doctors often do not tell patients or their families when an error has occurred, whether it be in surgery or anything else related to the patient’s health care. Instead, the doctors and institutions tend to try and cover up these events to avoid legal issues. In this case, the doctors are putting their own well being above that of their patients. According to the report, healthcare errors lead to more deaths than motor vehicle accidents, breast cancer or AIDS in the US. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2709172/).
Putting your life, or the life of a loved one in the hands of a human, capable of error, is an act of immense trust. The article refers to the doctor-patient relationship as fiduciary; “one who owes to another the duties of good faith, trust, confidence and candour”. This is trusting the doctor to act in best interest of the patient. However, can a doctor do that if he is worried about the consequences of an error? If he puts his own well being before that of the patient’s?
In class, we have talked about the importance of intention in ethics. When it comes to health care and medicine, if someone’s life is at stake, people tend to care less about intention and more about the outcome. If an error results in a patient’s death, the family cares little about the doctor’s intention to do good, the focus is on the error that resulted in death. This is the responsibility and punishment that the doctor must shoulder as a casualty of his daily work.
Here we have two different types of disclosure: risk disclosure before a procedure, and disclosure of any errors after a procedure. For the first, the law helps to encourage doctors to share all possible complications with the patient, to avoid lawsuits should anything go wrong. For the second, the threat of the law dissuades doctors from disclosing human error events that may have occurred. This would lead us to the assumption that doctors’ morals are rooted in fear of the law rather then intrinsic human nature.
However, this is not always the case. Like in the Canterbury v. Spence case, doctors sometimes choose to not share some information that they believe may do more harm then good. They take the risk of the potential lawsuit in their effort to do what they believe is best for the patient. In this case, the doctor is putting the patient’s well being above his own. So which is more important, the patient’s autonomy or the doctor’s duty to do what he feels is best for the patient?
Edwin AK. Non-disclosure of medical errors an egregious violation of ethical principles. Ghana Med J. 2009;43(1):34–9. [PMC free article] [PubMed] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2709172/?report=classic
Informed Consent: Opinion Canterbury v Spence https://ereserves.library.emory.edu/reservesViewer.php?reserve=563719 Physicians’ obligations and patients’ rights.