Would you tell a patient about a potentially harmful medical mistake? Would you upcode or overstate a patient’s condition so an insurer will cover it? What about reporting a colleague who seems impaired or engages in sexual harassment or bullying?
In a new survey, Medscape asked more than 4100 US physicians how they would react to these and other ethically challenging scenarios.
For example, a full 80% of cardiologists responding to the survey said they would reveal a potentially harmful medical mistake to their patient.
This aligns with decades of advice from major medical societies such as the American Medical Association and the American College of Physicians, which endorse disclosing to patients and families any error that could jeopardize the patient’s health.
“Disclosure of close calls should also be made. From a health law context, being up-front with the patient is standard practice,” said Eric Mathison, PhD, a clinical ethicist at University of Toronto.
When it comes to upcoding or overstating a patient’s condition so an insurer will cover it, more than three quarters of cardiologists (78%) viewed this as unacceptable, while 9% felt it was okay and 13% said “it depends.”
Many doctors are willing to stretch coding policies to the limit to support patients and their finances, said Arthur L. Caplan, PhD, NYU professor of bioethics and Medscape blogger. “That’s acceptable advocacy. But most doctors will not say they are willing to commit fraud.”
Okay to Breach Patient Confidentiality?
More than half of cardiologists felt it was okay to breach patient confidentiality when someone’s health could be threatened, 14% felt the opposite, and 29% said it depends.
“I teach that if you know someone faces a direct risk from catching a deadly disease, and you know who that person is, then you have a duty to warn,” Caplan said. “The disease has to be serious for [breaching confidentiality] to be morally defensible, and your disclosure has to be actionable. Telling your mother won’t achieve a lot” in protecting someone’s health.
In Medscape’s 2020 ethics survey, 72% of cardiologists felt that they could accept a meal or speaking gig from a drug company without it creating any issue for them.
Three years later, only 66% of cardiologists said they could accept a meal or speaking engagement without it influencing their prescribing habits; 21% said they couldn’t and 13% said it depends.
Caplan thinks that many doctors are deceiving themselves. “We know from business school case studies that even little gifts like calendars and flashlights work. Humans get a sense of debt when they receive gifts. Physicians are no exception. If you get a meal or an invitation to do a talk for a small fee, you may still say, ‘This is nothing to me,'” but subconscious favoritism can result, he cautioned.
Support for Physician-Assisted Dying?
Ten states and the District of Columbia now allow physicians to help a terminally ill patient with dying, and 50% of cardiologists surveyed support it, 36% are against it, and 14% said it depends. These percentages are roughly the same as in 2020.
Mathison said the public and physicians are “getting more comfortable with physician-assisted dying. Physicians are seeing it used in practice and hearing from other physicians who are participating.”
However, only 31% of cardiologists felt physician-assisted dying should be allowed for patients in intractable pain; 42% said it should not be legal in this case, and 26% said it depends.
As opposed to physician-assisted dying for terminally ill patients, no US state recognizes the legal right to help end the life of a patient in unending pain. However, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg do under certain conditions.
Going public about issues with a cardiologist’s hospital or healthcare organization became a major issue during the COVID-19 pandemic as some medical professionals struggled to get enough personal protective equipment and made it known.
More than half of cardiologists surveyed (53%) endorsed speaking out if employers don’t provide needed resources; 9% didn’t feel this was appropriate, and 28% said it depends.
Caplan noted that prominent cases of hospitals firing nurses and doctors who complained over social media may influence cardiologists’ willingness. He also thinks some doctors would ask, “Speak out to whom?” Many cardiologists will aggressively push for resources through the internal chain of command “but don’t think talking to the media is ethical or appropriate.”
The vast majority of cardiologists and physicians overall said they have never failed to report or investigate suspected domestic abuse of a patient.
Both male and female physicians strongly support reporting of abuse cases, said Thomas May, PhD, a bioethicist at Washington State University.
This reflects the “tremendous strides society has made in recognizing the impact of abuse and the need for required-reporting policies, because victims are often, if not usually, reticent to come forward. Required reporting is necessary and in the patient’s interests,” May said.
Romancing a Patient?
More than half (58%) of cardiologists felt that having a romantic relationship with a current patient is not okay; 3% were okay with it, and 30% felt it would be okay at least 6 months after the patient-doctor relationship ended.
May said a romantic relationship is “inappropriate while the professional relationship is active and even for some time afterward. There’s a professional dynamic that needs to be maintained, a sense of objectivity.”
“Plus, the physician is in a power relationship to the patient where there’s a sense of gratefulness or vulnerability that makes the patient unable to say no to a personal relationship,” May said.
May is not sure 6 months after they stop being your patient is long enough. “I’d think something like 2 years as a minimum. If I were your oncologist and helped save your life, it may never be appropriate,” May said.
In other ethical questions, one quarter of cardiologists would report a doctor who seems impaired by drugs, alcohol, or illness, and 62% would do so only after speaking to him/her first.
“Our obligation is to do no harm to patients, and the professional standards and integrity of the profession are at stake,” one survey respondent said.
Another said, “A colleague who recognizes the problem and after private discussion enters a treatment program is often better served than by the often excessively harsh management by the state medical board.”
But when it comes to random alcohol and drug tests for cardiologists, 51% are not in favor, 31% are in favor, and 18% said it depends.
Caplan thinks that physicians face enough responsibility to patients to warrant such testing randomly but infrequently. “Doctors may feel like they’re being treated unprofessionally, like drug addicts, or question the accuracy of testing,” he noted. But he tilts instead toward “the moral fight to protect patient safety and trying to drive down malpractice costs.”
When it comes to reporting a colleague for sexual harassment or bullying, 71% of cardiologists said yes, they would report such behavior; only 7% would not, while 22% said it depends.
“If we ignore bad behavior such as this by our colleagues, then we are hurting our profession,” one physician commented.
Full results from Medscape’s Right and Wrong in Medicine: Cardiologists Confront Difficult Decisions 2022 were published online February 6.
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