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Ethical Issues

Health care professionals, families and patients may face difficult decisions about medical treatments which involve religious beliefs, moral principles or professional guidelines. Health care ethics focuses on how to make morally good decisions and actions, based on values and beliefs about health, life, suffering and death.

Ethical issues typically arise when the right thing to do is not clear, or when people disagree about what is best for someone who is ill. Hospitals must always follow a strict code of ethics with every single patient each day. Some examples of common ethical issues include:

  • What should health care professionals and family members do if a patient refuses medically helpful treatment?
  • When should life-sustaining treatments (breathing machines, feeding tubes etc…) be started, continued or stopped?
  • What should patients do when they feel they are not offered the opportunity to participate in their own health care decisions?
  • Who should make health care decisions for patients unable to decide for themselves?

A common framework used in dealing with medical ethical issues follows four basic moral principles: respect for autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence and justice. Respect for autonomy means the patient has the right to refuse or choose their treatment and beneficence means a practitioner should act in the best interest of the patient. Non-maleficence means above all, do no harm and justice concerns fair and equitable distribution of health care resources and treatment. 

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