Thursday, November 8, 2012

The patient-doctor relationship - a relationship between unequals

Today's Straits Times carried an interesting report of  contest in a coroner's court between a mother who is a nurse, and a surgeon. The mother, who had lost her daughter in a liver transplant contended the surgeon provided sub-standard care because she had a spat with the surgeon earlier.

She did not convince the coroner. However, the case highlighted the inherently unequal relationship that exists between a patient (and relatives) and the doctor. Here, every patient is in essentially a subordinated position, and generally hesitant to offend the attending physician/surgeon. This is generally the case, unless the relationship is based on a completely elective and unnecessary procedure, when a more commercial/contractual relationship may apply.

This is why I am concerned about how the physician/surgeon goes about taking consent for procedures. Often the consent is taken by the care giver. In this case, the patient is often afraid of offending the doctor. This unequal relationship very clearly does not create the circumstance when a truly voluntary consent can be obtained. This ethical lapse, also applies to the situation when consent is being sought for participation in a experimental procedure or clinical trial when the researcher or care giver is himself/herself the one administering the informed consent.

The more academic hospitals compound the problem further by expecting patients on admission to consent to giving up rights to tissues and genetic material for research purposes. This consent is often taken at most inappropriate times when the patient and his/her relatives are most dependent and submissive.

The hospital ethics committees applying their very utilitarian logic, obviously do not disapprove of these ethical lapses.

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