The origins and consequences of patient autonomy: a 25-year retrospective

Health Care Anal. 2001;9(3):255-64. doi: 10.1023/A:1012937429109.


This essay explores the evolution of the tension between the principles of autonomy and beneficence in American health care over the past several decades. In retrospect it is clear that the social movements of the 1960s and 70s set the tone and the goals for the emergence of a new emphasis on patient autonomy. Indeed, the impact of civil liberties-minded lawyers on the promotion of a commitment to autonomy is far more vital than the term "bioethics" commonly suggests. Tracing the impact of this principle on clinical encounters over the past 25 years makes apparent that consumers have extended their influence over a wide range of treatment decisions. This influence is now being reinforced by an extraordinary information revolution, which includes the computer, the web, the dot.coms, the search engines, and such novel practices as Direct-to-Consumer advertising by pharmaceutical companies. The impact of these developments may be seen in such diverse issues as physician-assisted suicide and the failure of national health insurance initiatives.

MeSH terms

  • Advertising / trends
  • Beneficence
  • Drug Industry / trends
  • Humans
  • Informed Consent
  • Patient Participation / trends*
  • Patient Rights / trends*
  • Personal Autonomy*
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Social Change
  • Suicide, Assisted
  • United States