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Law & Ethics are fundamental to practising medicine

The world of law and ethics is one of the fundamental building blocks to practising medicine anywhere in the world.   Every human being is an individual who has equal rights as his or her brother and sister.  Rights when under the care of a medical team in hospital, to public health and safety, there are laws everywhere designed to protect their health.  For instance, laws that ensure your privacy remains protected, that your consent is obtained before treatment, and that medical staff cannot carry out procedures without due care.

As a result, medical staff can be held responsible in both criminal and civil courts if they break the law.   Therefore, it is important that doctors equip themselves with knowledge around Medico-legal-ethical law.  How can they practise ethically and legally if they don’t know what these are.   Remember, being a doctor is NOT JUST about clinical medicine.  The moment you decide to PRACTISE medicine, is the moment you have agreed to carrying out your clinical duties within the medico-legal-ethical framework of the society you are part of.   The clinical medicine you learn at medical school and thereafter is the expert knowledge and skills we need to KNOW inorder to become a doctor.  The ethics and the law helps us understand how to APPLY it in real practice and in doing so, helps us develop our attitudes as practising doctors.

Why are they important?

A great article taken from: http://www.unsystemceb.org/medical-law-ethics.htm

Medical ethics plays a large role in determining what medical law says and how it is interpreted.    In fact, every law that has been passed to protect patients has arisen as a result of ethical considerations. As time has gone on, these laws are then adapted to reflect the changing nature of our ethical world.

For example; it has long been the case that doctors have been legally bound to tell their patients about the broad risks associated with the procedure they are to undergo. In the 50s, a doctor would have been able to hold back information if they felt it was in the patient’s best interests not to know any more about the procedure’s risks. Today, doing that would be considered too paternalistic; many now see it as being unethical to hold back information regarding risks, which means the way this law has been interpreted now reflects our ethical expectations.

One more contentious area where ethics are involved in the interpretation of the law is the abortion act. While those who are against abortion feel it should only ever be granted in cases involving rape, incest, and when the mother’s life is at risk, firm advocates believe that it is unethical to force a woman to continue with a pregnancy against her will. While the Abortion Act [1967] states that a doctor can grant an abortion when they are concerned about a woman’s mental well-being, many doctors interpret this part of the act to meet the wide consensus that women should be able to choose. Such areas of medical ethics give rise to debates over whether the act should be changed to reflect society’s views regarding abortions.

It is also the case that many medical legal outcomes that would have been considered unthinkable years ago are now being considered. One such outcome is euthanising a patient with their consent when their condition makes their life unbearable. Even when the abortion act was developed in 1967, the idea of euthanasia was unthinkable. However, as society’s idea of what constitutes cruelty changes, so does its approach to whether we should be able to ask medical professionals to end life. These debates are often highlighted by landmark cases, such as the death of Tony Bland in the early nineties, which changed how we approach end of life care in this country. As turning off Tony’s life support marked a turning point in end of life care, it makes sense that further changes are on the horizon.

The Deeper Aspects of Medical Law and Ethics
It is also the case that medical law and ethics step outside of what the law currently defines, and take arguments onto a more philosophical level. This can be seen in the way mental health classifications and treatments are approached. While some do not see any problems with the way our current mental health care system operates, others feel that it acts as a prison that is used to trap those who we see as less favourable in society. These arguments have been explored for many years by philosophers, but are continuing to rise in popularity across the field of medical law and ethics.

In more practical terms, medical law and ethics can be used to determine more challenging issues, such as patient resource allocation. In a cash strapped NHS, many doctors and hospital managers find themselves facing difficult choices. Such choices can include whether to administer life saving treatment to one person, or to use that money to enhance the life of 10 others. These choices are faced by healthcare professionals everyday, and can often lead to medical legal cases when patients and their families do not feel that the right decision has been taken.

As we will always be concerned with ethics as human beings, it stands to reason that Medical Ethics & Law will always have a place in the field of medicine.  Medical law and ethics is something that we encounter every day, but we do not realise it. The laws we enjoy access to ensure that the best interests of patients and people are served. However, these ethics are only set in accordance with what we feel is socially acceptable as a society, which means they can change at any time. As society’s ethical views change, so will the way medicine is approached.  This makes working in medical law and ethics interesting, exciting, and beneficial.

Please leave a comment if you have a tip, spot an error, spot something missing or have a suggestion for a web resource.
And of course, if you have developed a resource of your own, please email it to me to share with others.

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