Self-Defeating Codes of Medical Ethics and How to Fix Them: Failures in COVID-19 Response and Beyond

Am J Bioeth. 2021 Jan;21(1):4-13. doi: 10.1080/15265161.2020.1845854.


Statements of the core ethical and professional responsibilities of medical professionals are incomplete in ways that threaten fundamental goals of medicine. First, in the absence of explicit guidance for responding to cases in which there is significant uncertainty or disagreement about the relative therapeutic, prophylactic or diagnostic merits of available interventions they perpetuate self-defeating practices. Second, without addressing the role of advertising in shaping patient and community preferences they risk creating moral loopholes that bypass and undermine professional duties of fidelity, honesty and transparency. In both cases, these flaws are exacerbated by an individualism that ignores the critical role of health systems in managing and reducing uncertainty and conflict over best practices, and in communicating with and shaping the expectations of the public. These points are illustrated with examples from the response to COVID-19 and suggestions for reform are proposed.

Keywords: Professional ethics; biomedical research; decision making; health care delivery; human subjects research; public health.

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19*
  • Codes of Ethics
  • Ethics, Medical
  • Humans
  • Morals
  • SARS-CoV-2