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Health Care Ethics: Overview of the Basics

What Is Health Care Ethics?

Health care ethics (a/k/a "medical" ethics or "bioethics"), at its simplest, is a set of moral principles, beliefs and values that guide us in making choices about medical care.

At the core of health care ethics is our sense of right and wrong and our beliefs about rights we possess and duties we owe others.

Thinking carefully about the ethical aspects of health care decisions helps us make choices that are right, good, fair and just.

The Core Principles of Health Care Ethics

Our ethical responsibilities in a given situation depend in part on the nature of the decision and in part on the roles we play. For example, a patient and his or her family play different roles and owe different ethical obligations to each other than a patient and his or her physician. In the US, four main principles define the ethical duties that health care professionals owe to patients. They are:

  • Autonomy: to honor the patients right to make their own decision
  • Beneficence: to help the patient advance his/her own good
  • Nonmaleficence: to do no harm
  • Justice: to be fair and treat like cases alike

All 4 principles are considered to be in effect at all times. In theory, each is of equal weight or importance. In practice, however, at least in the US, respect for patient autonomy often takes priority over the others.