ATrain Education


Continuing Education for Health Professionals

CA: Ethical Decisions in Physical Therapy

Module 3

The Language of Bioethics

The language of biomedical ethics is applied across all practice settings, and four basic principles are commonly accepted by bioethicists. These principles include (1) autonomy, (2) beneficence, (3) nonmaleficence, and (4) justice. In physical therapy, and other health fields, veracity and fidelity are also spoken of as ethical principals but they are not part of the foundational ethical principles identified by bioethicists.

The Principle of Autonomy

Autonomy is an American value. We espouse great respect for individual rights and equate freedom with autonomy. Our system of law supports autonomy and, as a corollary, upholds the right of individuals to make decisions about their own healthcare.

Respect for autonomy requires that patients be told the truth about their condition and informed about the risk and benefits of treatment. Under the law, they are permitted to refuse treatment even if the best and most reliable information indicates that treatment would be beneficial, unless their action may have a negative impact on the well-being of another individual. These conflicts set the stage for ethical dilemmas.

The concept of autonomy has evolved, from paternalistic physicians who held ethical decision-making authority, to patients empowered to participate in making decisions about their own care, to patients heavily armed with Internet resources who seek to prevail in any decision-making. This transition of authority has been slower to evolve in the geriatric population but, as the baby boomers age they will assert this evolving standard of independence. Autonomy, however, does not negate responsibility. Healthcare is at its foundation a partnership between the provider and the recipient of care. Each owes the other responsibility and respect (Veatch, 2016).

The Principle of Beneficence

The beneficent practitioner provides care that is in the best interest of the patient. Beneficence is the act of being kind. The actions of the healthcare provider are designed to bring about a positive good. Beneficence always raises the question of subjective and objective determinations of benefit versus harm. A beneficent decision can only be objective if the same decision was made regardless of who was making it.

Traditionally the ethical decision making process and the ultimate decision were the purview of the physician. This is no longer the case; the patient and other healthcare providers, according to their specific expertise, are central to the decision-making process (Valente, 2000). For example, physical and occupational therapists have expertise in quality-of-life issues, and in this capacity can offer much to the discussions of lifestyle and life-challenging choices, particularly when dealing with terminal diseases and end-of-life dilemmas (Leeuwenburgh-Pronk, 2015).

The Principle of Nonmaleficence

Nonmaleficence means doing no harm. Providers must ask themselves whether their actions may harm the patient either by omission or commission. The guiding principle of primum non nocere, “first of all, do no harm,” is based in the Hippocratic Oath. Actions or practices of a healthcare provider are “right” as long as they are in the interest of the patient and avoid negative consequences.

Patients with terminal illnesses are often concerned that technology will maintain their life beyond their wishes; thus, healthcare providers are challenged to improve care during this end stage of life. Patients may even choose to hasten death if options are available (Phipps et al., 2003). The right of the individual to choose to “die with dignity” is the ultimate manifestation of autonomy, but it is difficult for healthcare providers to accept death when there may still be viable options. Here we see the principle of nonmaleficence conflicting with the principle of autonomy as the healthcare providers desire to be beneficent or, at the least, cause no harm. The active choice to hasten death versus the seemingly passive choice of allowing death to occur requires that we provide patients with all the information necessary to make an informed choice about courses of action available to them.

A complicating factor in end-of-life decisions is patients’ concern that, even if they make their wishes clear (eg, through an advance directive), their family members or surrogates will not be able to carry out their desires and permit death to occur (Phipps et al., 2003). Treating against the wishes of the patient can potentially result in mental anguish and subsequent harm.

The Principle of Justice

Justice speaks to equity and fairness in treatment. Hippocrates related ethical principles to the individual relationship between the physician and the patient. Ethical theory today must extend beyond individuals to the institutional and societal realms (Gabard & Martin, 2003).


Principles of Justice

  • To each person an equal share
  • To each person according to need
  • To each person according to effort
  • To each person according to contribution
  • To each person according to merit
  • To each person according to free market exchanges

Justice may be seen as having two types: distributive and comparative. Distributive justice addresses the degree to which healthcare services are distributed equitably throughout society. Within the logic of distributive justice, we should treat similar cases similarly—but how can we determine if cases are indeed similar? Beauchamp and Childress (2001) identify six material principles that must be considered, while recognizing that there is little likelihood all six principles could be satisfied at the same time (see box).

Looking at the principles of justice as they relate to the delivery of care, it is apparent that they do conflict in many circumstances; for example, a real-life system that attempts to provide an equal share to each person is distributing resources that are not without limit. When good patient care demands more than the system has allocated, there may be a need for adjustments within the marketplace.

Comparative justice determines how healthcare is delivered at the individual level. It looks at disparate treatment of patients on the basis of age, disability, gender, race, ethnicity, and religion. Of particular interest currently are the disparities that occur because of age. In 1975, Singer related bias as a result of age to gender and race discrimination and referred to the practice as ageism (Gabard & Martin, 2003). In a society where equal access to healthcare does not exist, there is a continuing concern about the distribution of resources, particularly as the population ages and the demand for services increases.

Finally, the variations in healthcare tend toward greater spending on seniors in selected years between 1987 and 2004; although this is no surprise, it is important to note that the relative gap in spending between children, working adults, and seniors has not changed. The only exception is those age 85 and older because the number of individuals in that cohort continues to increase (Hartman et al., 2008). Equitable allocation of resources is an ever-increasing challenge as technology improves and lives are extended through natural and mechanical means.

Political trends and changes also impact the principle of justice in healthcare decisions. Democratic President Barack Obama introduced the first government sanctioned healthcare aimed at covering all Americans (PPACA, 2010). Republicans have tried for years to undo that legislation, and may succeed in doing so under President Donald Trump.

All of these factors place greater stress on an already inefficient and overburdened healthcare system and results in more difficult ethical decisions about workforce allocation and equitable distribution of financial resources.

The Principle of Veracity

Veracity (truthfulness) is not a foundational bioethical principle and is granted just a passing mention in most ethics texts. It is at its core an element of respect for persons (Gabard, 2003). Veracity is antithetical to the concept of medical paternalism, which assumes patients need to know only what their physicians choose to reveal. Obviously there has been a dramatic change in attitudes toward veracity because it forms the basis for the autonomy expected by patients today. Informed consent, for example, is the ability to exercise autonomy with knowledge.

Decisions about withholding information involve a conflict between veracity and deception. There are times when the legal system and professional ethics agree that deception is legitimate and legal. Therapeutic privilege is invoked when the healthcare team makes the decision to withhold information believed to be detrimental to the patient. Such privilege is by its nature subject to challenge.

The Principle of Fidelity

Fidelity is loyalty. It speaks to the special relationship developed between patients and their physical therapists. Each owes the other loyalty; although the greater burden is on the medical provider, increasingly the patient must assume some of the responsibility (Beauchamp & Childress, 2001). Fidelity often results in a dilemma, because a commitment made to a patient may not result in the best outcome for that patient (Veatch, 2016). At the root of fidelity is the importance of keeping a promise, or being true to your word. Individuals see this differently. Some are able to justify the importance of the promise at almost any cost, and others are able to set aside the promise if an action could be detrimental to the patient.

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