Patients' responsibilities in medical ethics

Bioethics. 2002 Aug;16(4):335-52. doi: 10.1111/1467-8519.00292.


Patients have not been entirely ignored in medical ethics. There has been a shift from the general presumption that 'doctor knows best' to a heightened respect for patient autonomy. Medical ethics remains one-sided, however. It tends (incorrectly) to interpret patient autonomy as mere participation in decisions, rather than a willingness to take the consequences. In this respect, medical ethics remains largely paternalistic, requiring doctors to protect patients from the consequences of their decisions. This is reflected in a one-sided account of duties in medical ethics. Duties fall mainly on doctors and only exceptionally on patients. Medical ethics may exempt patient from obligations because they are the weaker or more vulnerable party in the doctor-patient relationship. We argue that vulnerability does not exclude obligation. We also look at other ways in which patient responsibilities flow from general ethics: for instance, from responsibilities to others and to the self, from duties of citizens, and from the responsibilities of those who solicit advice. Finally, we argue that certain duties of patients counterbalance an otherwise unfair capacity of doctors as helpers.

MeSH terms

  • Bioethics
  • Ethics, Medical
  • Humans
  • Life Style*
  • Moral Obligations*
  • Patient Compliance*
  • Patients*
  • Personal Autonomy
  • Physician-Patient Relations / ethics*
  • Refusal to Treat / ethics
  • Social Responsibility