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ETHICS IN MEDICINE   University of Washington School of Medicine

3. The Principle of Beneficence:
Illustrative Cases

One clear example exists in health care where the principle of beneficence is given priority over the principle of respect for patient autonomy. This example comes from Emergency Medicine. When the patient is incapacitated by the grave nature of accident or illness, we presume that the reasonable person would want to be treated aggressively, and we rush to provide beneficent intervention by stemming the bleeding, mending the broken or suturing the wounded.

In this culture, when the physician acts from a benevolent spirit in providing beneficent treatment that in the physician's opinion is in the best interests of the patient, without consulting the patient, or by overriding the patient's wishes, it is considered to be "paternalistic." The most clear cut case of justified paternalism is seen in the treatment of suicidal patients who are a clear and present danger to themselves. Here, the duty of beneficence requires that the physician intervene on behalf of saving the patient's life or placing the patient in a protective environment, in the belief that the patient is compromised and cannot act in his own best interest at the moment.

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Last date modified: April 11, 2008