doctor holding patients hands

Having the knowledge and moral compass necessary to properly handle ethical issues that arise in patient care is vital for healthcare professionals. You’re not just performing any job; you’re taking on the responsibility of caring for patients with a plethora of health conditions, including life-threatening injuries and diseases. Your job is to ensure the best course of action is followed for each patient regardless of their age, health, background or financial situation.

To do so, it’s not enough to gain practical knowledge and skills, like how to draw blood, insert IVs or administer medication. As a healthcare professional, you’ll be faced with making daily decisions concerning what’s right for each patient. Having an in-depth knowledge and understanding of the fundamentals of medical ethics will help you conduct yourself in a professional way and make the right decisions concerning your patients’ safety and welfare.


The Four Pillars of Medical Ethics

A big part of being a successful medical professional, such as a doctor, nurse or respiratory therapist, is incorporating the four pillars of medical ethics into your daily medical routine. This ethical framework consists of the following principles:

  1. Autonomy: The patient ultimately decides what happens to their body
  2. Beneficence: Always do what’s best for the patient
  3. Non-maleficence: Priumum non nocere (first, do no harm)
  4. Justice: Giving the same quality of care to all patients


Autonomy means that every patient, unless they’re a minor or they lack the cognitive capacity to make an informed decision, has the inherent right to make decisions about their own treatment. From a medical standpoint, this can be a difficult concept to accept. However, patient autonomy must always be respected, even if you know the decision they make may result in deterioration or death.

Example: Do-Not-Resuscitate Orders

Patients with serious and chronic medical conditions may have a Do-Not-Resuscitate (DNR) order. When this order is in place, healthcare providers must refrain from performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) if the patient’s heart stops or they stop breathing.



Beneficence refers to doing what’s best for each patient. Unfortunately, the optimal approach to care isn’t always clear in complex situations. Determining the best course of action should always involve an individualized approach. No two patients are identical and what’s best for one person may not be a helpful solution for someone else.

Example: Non-Surgical Treatment of a Knee Ligament Injury

A doctor treating a patient suffering from a knee ligament injury may choose to refrain from surgery unless they’ve exhausted less invasive treatment alternatives. While surgery may be an effective solution, it’s invasive and can be risky. It may be appropriate to treat the patient with less invasive, less expensive therapies before resorting to surgery, such as anti-inflammatory medications, steroid injections and physical therapy.



Non-maleficence refers to meeting the high standards of care required of healthcare workers by choosing only those treatments that will do more good than harm to a patient.

Example: Stopping Ineffective Treatments with Serious Side Effects

There are some medical treatments that are necessary despite their painful or unpleasant side effects. However, a patient shouldn’t be made to suffer those treatments needlessly if the therapies aren’t improving the patient’s condition, or the harm outweighs the benefit.



Any decision relating to a patient’s health should be fair and unbiased. This typically refers to equally distributing medical resources and providing the same quality of care to everyone who needs it.

Example: While undocumented immigrants aren’t eligible for public insurance programs (except emergency care), they shouldn’t be refused treatment based on their immigration status.


Learn How to Provide Ethical Patient Care with a Healthcare Degree from St. Louis College of Health Careers in Missouri

Are you driven by ethics, possess excellent critical thinking skills and have a passion for serving others? If you’ve answered yes to all three questions, you should strongly consider a career in the medical field.

At SLCHC, we offer a variety of flexible and accredited healthcare programs to help you embark on your new career. Whether you’re interested in becoming a nurse, a respiratory therapist or a medical assistant, we’ll guide you in your educational journey by providing challenging coursework, online learning opportunities and mentoring provided by instructors with real-world experience dealing with ethical issues in the medical field.

To learn more about our associate, bachelor and master degree programs, call 866-529-2070 or send us a message.

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