Improved health or improved decision making? The ethical goals of EBM

J Eval Clin Pract. 2011 Oct;17(5):957-63. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2753.2011.01743.x. Epub 2011 Aug 18.


Evidence-based medicine (EBM) is frequently portrayed as a value-free approach to knowing what kinds of treatment 'really work.' Since practitioners should help patients to improve their health, and EBM tells us which interventions will work, then it follows that we must practice EBM, offering only those interventions supported by evidence. The primary goal of EBM, then, is an ethical one - to improve health. More recently, EBM's authors have also committed themselves to 'shared decision making' in which evidence plays a role in the clinical encounter, but where patients, motivated by their own values, should have final decision-making authority. Envisioned this way, strengthening the informed consent process, rather than improved health per se, is viewed as the goal of EBM. In this paper, I will explore this shift in EBM's ethics from the goal of improved health towards the goal of strengthened informed consent. Drawing upon data from a qualitative enquiry of scholars involved in the development of EBM, I will argue that EBM is now committed to both of these ethical goals. Where they conflict, the aim of the intervention will determine which goal practitioners should pursue. Having increased the ethical complexity of EBM, we are left with the question of whether EBM would still be judged a success if it did not lead to much in the way of improvements in health, but primarily strengthened informed consent. This paper will conclude by arguing that this more nuanced version of EBM's ethics accurately reflects the dynamics of real clinical practice but undermines the original, perceived need for EBM.

MeSH terms

  • Decision Making*
  • Ethics, Clinical*
  • Evidence-Based Medicine / ethics*
  • Evidence-Based Medicine / organization & administration
  • Health Status
  • Humans
  • Informed Consent / ethics*
  • Patient Participation*