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Professionalism and ethics


The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO) has a policy draft out for consultation on Professionalism and Human Rights. Though the policy would directly apply only to physicians the topics raised in the policy are significant for all health care professionals.

The nature and sources of moral – or ethical obligation.

I will use the words “moral” and “ethical” interchangeably, some people wish to maintain a distinction between “moral” as something more within the personal domain, and “ethical” as something more public or social, but as we will see in this piece that distinction won’t help us, at the end of the day there is just you, or me, deciding what you or I will do. We have a variety of sources for our moral or ethical commitments. I am a member of a family, and a community, I live in a shared environment, each of these bring moral obligations. I have obligations to my children, my partner, and my extended family and I have those obligations because of my relationships with those people. I have an obligation to my community and environment because I share that space with others. Some would argue that I have ethical obligations to respect the law and some people have moral convictions that stem from their religious beliefs, and – and this is the issue here, many of us have ethical obligations that stem from our roles as professionals. (Of course those preceding couple of sentences could be a book chapter – or indeed the book itself, this is all contested territory, but the point I want is that our moral obligations legitimately come from a variety of sources.) Most of the time that all fits more or less neatly together. We typically choose our relationships, religious beliefs and professions in accordance with our deepest values and we can often juggle the pieces to fit. But not always.


An example of conflict

Some years ago, in the aftermath of SARS many health care organizations started to develop pandemic plans. In the context of those plans issues of staffing arose, what would happen if there was a pandemic and health care professionals were fearful for their own safety? I was summonsed, along with the other ethicist working in the area and we were told by a senior hospital administrator that we were to go out and do some education sessions on the “duty to provide care.” After my initial reluctance to do what I was told… the next thing was to think about the duty to provide care. Is there such a duty for a health care professional? And of course it’s pretty easy to get to the conclusion – yes. But as the sessions progressed it quickly became apparent that that was only part of the story. Is there a duty for a health care professional to provide care – yes. Is there a duty for a parent to look after his or her children – yes. What happens when those two duties collide? (When your day care plans have fallen though because your usual provider is sick and so on.) In this case a professional ethical obligation came into conflict with a personal moral obligation. In this case it is clear what people will do but this realisation interestingly shifts the problem for organizations. The original thought was that the obligation to provide care should be preached – and that this would be enough – in effect the burden would be placed on the shoulders of care providers. But this could not be the solution. Care providers themselves have other, potentially competing moral obligations too. The real problem for health care organizations had to be to work out how to support staff to make it as easy as possible for them to fulfill their health care obligations. That would mean encouraging people to make contingency plans for their other obligations – and supporting those plans where possible, and in providing as safe as possible a work environment. Sometimes our professional obligations can come into conflict with our other obligations – and at that point we have to decide what we – as persons will do.


Physicians and the duty to refer.

First, let’s lay the groundwork. Medicine is a self-regulated profession. That is, medical practitioners have been given the social right to set their own standards of practice and to ensure that the training, education, and discipline of practitioners meet those standards. In Ontario the authority to ensure that this occurs is granted to the CPSO. The CPSO describes self-regulation as a privilege, and medical professionalism as a social contract, a covenant between the profession and society. (The Practice Guide: Medical Professionalism and College Policies. ) The CPSO acts, in effect, as the mediator between the medical profession and the broader society which grants physicians their authority to practice. Physicians, practising in Ontario have accepted a professional ethical obligation to practice in accordance with CPSO values and standards.

The draft policy says the following:

156 Where physicians are unwilling to provide certain elements of care due to their moral or religious

157 beliefs, an effective referral to another health care provider must be provided to the patient. An

158 effective referral means a referral made in good faith, to a non-objecting, available, and accessible

159 physician or other health-care provider. The referral must be made in a timely manner to reduce the

160 risk of adverse clinical outcomes. Physicians must not impede access to care for existing patients, or

161 those seeking to become patients.


163 The College expects physicians to proactively maintain an effective referral plan for the frequently requested services they are unwilling to provide.

There are almost a thousand comments on this draft policy on the CPSO web site. Most of them objecting. In many cases the argument seems to be that, informing someone that while I do not do this someone else does, is somehow the moral equivalent of performing the deed itself. That does not seem quite right to me. It sounds a bit like suggesting that a librarian is responsible for doing the things described in the books on the library shelves. It is the case that a number of practices, for example, some forms of contraception, assisted reproduction, and abortion, are permitted in Ontario and can only be accessed through the medical profession. While a physician may choose not to offer those services him or her-self competent, ethical members of the same profession, in your jurisdiction, do, and informing your patient of that fact is not the moral equivalent of performing the act yourself.

The CPSO has situated the duty to refer in the context of the profession’s commitment to the broader community. That professional commitment then becomes binding on individual physicians. From the social perspective it is easy to see the point. The health care system in Ontario is a system of interlocking pieces. Physicians play a privileged role in that system. Furthermore, access to any part of the system is often controlled by physicians. No physician therefore, should be in a position to impede access to that system. Hence the duty to refer.

Ultimately, it is up to each one of us – physicians or not to decide how we will conduct our moral lives. Our moral obligations do indeed spring from a variety of sources and in the event of conflict we, each of us, must choose what we do. But, how we honestly, and carefully reflect upon and conceptualize our moral obligations and how they do or do not conflict is hugely significant, and may make all the difference.


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