Oregon and Washington Medical Malpractice and Personal Injury Attorneys


When a Medical Professional Crosses an Ethical Line

Doctor Ethics

We expect our doctors to have a certain level of medical skill, knowledge, and competence in their fields. When we speak of “medical malpractice,” we tend to think of doctors who are deficient in one of these areas. But what about doctors whose skill may be adequate, but whose ethics are lacking? When medical professionals cross an ethical line, they can harm patients just as surely, if more subtly, as if they had committed errors during surgery or diagnosis.

An ethical breach may not cause damage that is immediately obvious as a medical error. After all, if a patient bleeds out during surgery due to the surgeon's negligence, the harm is clear and irreversible. Let's talk about why ethical breaches in medicine are important, and why medical professionals must be held to account for the harm they cause their patients.

What are Medical Ethics, and What Constitutes a Breach?

As you probably know, physicians make a pledge called the “Hippocratic Oath" when they become doctors. This oath states explicitly what most of us understand implicitly: that the privilege of treating the lives and health of other human beings is a serious, even a sacred, trust. Although the oath itself does not say, "First, do no harm," as many people believe, this principle of non-maleficence is embraced by the medical profession. It may not always be possible to cure or help a patient, but a doctor should not harm a patient, especially intentionally. The flip side of this principle is beneficence: that is, doctors should act to help patients wherever possible.

Physicians should also respect patients' autonomy and dignity. Illness often robs patients of control over their health and life. Doctors should not further take away their patients' rights to self-determination. Patients should have the power to make decisions regarding their health a far as they are able. The principle of “informed consent” stems from a patient's right to autonomy.

Lastly, there is the principle of justice. We talk about justice more in the law than in medicine, but it often comes into play in medicine when resources are scarce. Imagine a scenario in which your spouse, who is in desperate need of a heart transplant, is passed over for an available heart in favor of a wealthy, but less ill, benefactor of the hospital. You can see how important justice is in medical decisions!

Some examples of violations of medical ethics include:

  • A doctor or psychiatrist who has sexual contact with a patient
  • Failing to give a patient information that would allow them to make informed decisions about care
  • Disclosing a patient's confidential information without their consent
  • Giving treatments a patient has explicitly refused, including end-of-life care
  • Using patients' blood or tissue samples for research or other use without their informed consent

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Any action taken by a medical professional that violates the principles of non-maleficence, beneficence, patient autonomy, or justice could potentially rise to the level of medical malpractice.

Taking Action When a Medical Professional Acts Unethically

Ethical breaches are not always as evident as medical errors; in fact, sometimes, patients may not realize that the suffering they're experiencing is even a result of medical malpractice at all. Sometimes, too, a doctor must commit violate one ethical principle in order to uphold another, such as not performing a procedure that would benefit a patient's health because it violates the patient's religious beliefs. Because we all want to trust our doctors, and are reluctant to believe they would deliberately harm us, many patients hesitate to take legal action against them.

If you think your doctor might have committed an ethical breach, you owe it to yourself to check it out with an experienced Oregon medical malpractice attorney. You may find out that no breach was committed. However, if your doctor did commit an ethical violation, and you don't act to hold him or her accountable, two things may happen. You will lose your opportunity for closure, and compensation for your suffering. Also, the doctor will not be held to account for his or her actions, and may go on to harm other patients.

In addition to helping you seek damages under the law, an attorney can help you make any necessary reports to state medical boards to have your doctor held to account within his or her profession, as well. To learn more about what's involved in an Oregon medical malpractice case based on ethics violations, and whether pursuing one is right for you, contact us to schedule a free consultation with one of our attorneys.

Categories: Medical Malpractice

Blog Disclaimer

The information in this blog post is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to be legal advice. You should not make a decision whether or not to contact a qualified medical malpractice attorney based upon the information in this blog post. No attorney-client relationship is formed nor should any such relationship be implied. If you require legal advice, please consult with a competent medical malpractice attorney licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.

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