Kimball Atwood has an interesting series of posts on the ethics of alternative medicine which I strongly encourage you to read. He does a great job examining the ethical implications of certain alternative medicine practices, and has a terrific dialog with Peter Moran, a frequent commenter here. At my other online locale, I make frequent forays into the morass of medical ethics, with an emphasis on specific clinical scenarios. Today, though, I’d like to take a step back and examine the nature of medical ethics as they apply to so-called alternative medicine.
First, and perhaps most important, I am not an ethicist. I do not have the depth of reading, the knowledge of terminology, or the specific education to lead a formal discussion on ethics. What I am is a practicing internist, who must make ethical decisions on a daily basis. Most of these decisions are of necessity made “from the heart”, but it is not infrequent that I must evaluate a situation more formally and fall back on some of the ethical principles of my profession.
Ethics are not static. They are not a divine gift bestowed on each of us as we don our white coats. They are a living part of our specific cultures, and of the profession we serve. Some of the modern principles of medical ethics are newer than others. Beneficence, non-maleficence, and confidentiality are ancient principles of medical ethics, which continue to be relevant today. Patient autonomy is a more recent value, reflecting a shift in how society views the relationship between patient and physician. These ethics must be mutable, as the profession itself is ever-changing. Despite this fluidity, there is an identifiable line of “doctor-hood” that has existed for at least the last century, and the members of this guild have always tried to adhere to some type of code of behavior.
Alternative medicine poses real challenges to the principle of medical ethics. First, we’ll discuss who, in fact, is bound by these principles, then the way in which alternative medicine is or is not compatible with medical ethics. (more…)