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Essential learning: Law and ethics

Earn CPD points by reading this feature on the key legal and ethical topics in the foundation curriculum. Dr Paul Nisselle explores the unique interplay between justice, patient autonomy and the law

law-and-ethicsCadbury Roses… it was always Cadbury Roses – the box of chocolates many of my elderly patients brought in as a ‘thank you’ Christmas present. But what about the expensive bottle of whisky presented by the same patient? Is this inappropriate? How do you refuse to accept it? What about a very expensive bottle of whisky presented by a different type of patient at the same time as a request for a certificate? Do you accept it? You could consider this has the appearance of a bribe, but you could be wrong.

Medical practice is an ethical and legal minefield. So what helps us manage these dilemmas in an effective way? The answer is – rarely, the law, but commonly, ethics.

Law vs ethics

First penned around 400BC, the Hippocratic Oath sounds a bit old-fashioned today. However, there are common threads in the text that new doctors may find useful use as guiding principles.

Medical practice is an ethical and legal minefield. So what helps us manage these dilemmas in an effective way? The answer is – rarely, the law, but commonly, ethics

In more recent times, statute (parliament-made) and common (court-made) law has piled many layers of formal legal duties on doctors, but the law has largely reflected long-standing ethical principles. Judges and politicians drive our behaviour at the periphery, but our collective ethical consciences have
historically had a much greater impact.

The content of those “collective ethical consciences” is reflected in documents, such as the GMC’s Good Medical Practice. It begins: “Good Medical Practice sets out the principles and values on which good practice is founded; these principles together describe medical professionalism in action.”

To oversimplify:

  • Ethics drive our behaviour, not the law
  • The law largely reflects ethics.

There are four ‘pillars’ of ethics:

  • Autonomy – respect for the patient’s right to self-determination
  • Beneficence – the duty to ‘do good’
  • Non-Maleficence – the duty to ‘not do bad’
  • Justice – to treat all people equally and equitably.

This is how the law reflects these principles:

Autonomy:

  • Consent
  • Confidentiality/Privacy
  • Access to Records

Beneficence:

  • Negligence Law

Non-Maleficence

  • Criminal Law
  • Negligence Law Regulation

Justice

  • Anti-discrimination law

Medical paternalism

There is little in the Hippocratic Oath about the patient’s right to make their own healthcare decisions or their right to be fully informed and involved. Medical paternalism was the accepted standard of medical practice for centuries. In 1871, in an address delivered to the graduating class of the Bellevue Hospital Medical College, Oliver Wendell Holmes, said: “Your patient has no more right to all the truth than he has to all the medicine in your saddle-bags... he should get only just so much as is good for him.”

Doctors cannot ‘force’ patients to follow their advice, but equally, doctors can refuse to give treatment that they think is not in the patient’s best interest

Over the course of the 20th century, the pendulum has swung away from this model of the doctor as a ‘benevolent despot’. It has not swung to the other extreme – a ‘servile technician’ model in which the doctor is a technician who does what the patient orders, but to a middle of the road position, characterised by ‘shared decision making’.

Doctors cannot ‘force’ patients to follow their advice, but equally, doctors can refuse to give treatment that they think is not in the patient’s best interests.

Autonomy

In 1914, Benjamin Cardozo, a judge in the New York Court of Appeals and later an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, handed down a decision that formulated the principles underpinning the consent model for undertaking medical procedures.

The case was this – following an examination, Mrs Mary Schloendorff was thought to have uterine masses. She agreed to have an examination under anaesthesia to assess whether her uterine masses were fibroids or something more sinister.

She specifically withheld consent for any other procedure. However, upon further examination her gynaecologist found a malignant tumour and went ahead and performed a hysterectomy.

When Mrs Schloendorff awoke, she sued the gynaecologist who had performed the surgery. Justice Cardozo then found that the gynaecologist’s actions constituted medical battery.1 A phrase from his judgment states:

“Every human being of adult years and sound mind has a right to determine what shall be done with his own body…”

A century later, the NHS Litigation Authority uses similar wording: “Patients have a fundamental legal and ethical right to determine what happens to their own bodies.”2

Justice Cardozo’s two caveats are – “adult years” and “sound mind”. The patient must be ‘competent’, that is above the legal age of consent, or below that age and judged to be intellectually and emotionally competent to make their own decision. The latter is known as ‘Gillick’ competence, after the case in which that principle was stated.3

Autonomy includes a right to privacy, and hence a doctor’s duty to maintain confidentiality. Hippocrates wrote: “Whatever in connection with my professional practice or not in connection with it I may see or hear in the lives of my patients which ought not be spoken abroad, I will not divulge, reckoning that all such should be kept secret.”

But note the weasel clause, “which ought not be spoken abroad”. In Hippocrates’ time, as is the case now, there are times when a doctor’s duty to the community, and a general duty to prevent forseeable harm, over rides their duty of confidentiality to an individual patient.

Autonomy includes a right to privacy, and hence a doctor’s duty to maintain confidentiality

Beneficence/Non-Maleficence

In the consent case described above, Justice Cardozo added in his judgment: “A surgeon who performs an operation without his patient’s consent commits an assault for which he is liable in damages. This is true except in cases of emergency where the patient is unconscious and where it is necessary to operate before consent can be obtained.”

The last sentence states the principle of ‘Emergency Privilege’. Your first duty is to act in the best interests of your patients. If a patient is unconscious and there is no time to seek consent from an ‘alternative decision maker’, you have the right – and duty – to do whatever is necessary to protect the patient from harm. This is one aspect of Beneficence.

It goes much further than that. The Hippocratic Oath outlined beneficence and non-maleficence two millennia before Justice Cardozo. He said: “I will follow that method of treatment which according to my ability and judgment, I consider for the benefit of my patient and abstain from whatever is harmful or mischievous.”

In earlier times, legal actions brought against doctors who had harmed patients were either criminal cases or civil cases brought in contract rather than negligence. However, after an English non-medical judgment in 1932, the modern law of negligence was defined, and medical negligence claims started to materialise.4

Mr Bolam

The defining medical case in the history of consent went to judgment in 1957. It involved a Mr Bolam who had been given ECT without a relaxant and managed to fracture his pelvis. ECT was new at that time, and medical opinion was divided on whether a relaxant anaesthetic should be used.5

In the subsequent legal action, the court was invited to decide between the two competing medical schools of thought – relaxant or no relaxant. The court said it was not competent to decide on a medical issue. The judge in that case said that: “A doctor is not guilty of negligence if he has acted in accordance with a practice accepted as proper by a responsible body of medical men skilled in that particular art.”

This has been tweaked a bit over the years, but the ‘Bolam test’ or ‘Bolam standard’, also called the ‘Peer Professional Acceptance’ or ‘Reasonable doctor’ test, remains the yardstick.

Hippocrates wrote that doctors should: “Continue with diligence to keep abreast of advances in medicine.” In 1711 Alexander Pope cautioned us to: “Be not the first by whom the new are tried, nor yet the last to lay the old aside.” Neither ethics nor the law requires us to be the best doctor in the world, but we do need to attain and maintain that level of skill in what we do that would attract peer support.

Justice

There are three elements to Justice:

  • Distributive justice – fair distribution of limited healthcare resources
  • Rights-based justice – respect for people’s rights, such as prohibition of discrimination
  • Legal justice – respect for the law.

On an individual patient level, there are some obvious elements to ‘Justice’– for example, not discriminating against patients on the basis of their colour, race, religion, etc; but can we refuse to perform cardiac surgery on a patient because they smoke? Is that discrimination – punishing the patient for not stopping – or a fair medical judgment based on their increased risk of complications at and after surgery?

On an individual patient level, there are some obvious elements to ‘Justice’– for example, not discriminating against patients on the basis of their colour, race, religion, etc; but can we refuse to perform cardiac surgery on a patient because they smoke?
More broadly, we do our best to maintain a focus on the patient in front of us, but we are aware of the need to balance that patient’s rights and needs against the need for an equitable allocation of healthcare funds and resources. Who decides what is ‘equitable’? The ethical principle of Justice imposes a moral obligation to decide fairly between competing claims.

References

  1. Schloendorff v Society of New York Hospital (1914)
  2. NHSLA, Risk Management Handbook (2012)
  3. Gillick v West Norfolk and Wisbech Area Health Authority (1985)
  4. Donoghue v Stevenson (1932)
  5. Bolam v Friern Hospital Management Committee (1957)

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