Medical Law and Ethics

Medical Law and Ethics Although it may be the law that has the final say in medical cases, ethics plays a large role in determining what the law says. In addition to this, medical ethics will also play a role in how the law is interpreted. From laws that protect patients from harm, to those that continue to be contentious, medical law and ethics sparks many interesting debates for those who enter the field. As an area of healthcare and medicine that will not die out, it also offers many attractive career prospects for those who are interested in it.

How Ethics Define the Law

Every law that has been passed to protect patients has arisen as a result of ethical considerations. As time has gone on, these laws have also been adapted to reflect the changing nature of our ethical world. For example; it has long been the case that doctors have been legally bound to tell their patients about the broad risks associated with the procedure they are to undergo. In the 50s, a doctor would have been able to hold back information if they felt it was in the patient's best interests not to know any more about the procedure's risks. Today, doing that would be considered too paternalistic; many now see it as being unethical to hold back information regarding risks, which means the way this law has been interpreted now reflects our ethical expectations.

One more contentious area where ethics are involved in the interpretation of the law is the abortion act. While those who are against abortion feel it should only ever be granted in cases involving rape, incest, and when the mother's life is at risk, firm advocates believe that it is unethical to force a woman to continue with a pregnancy against her will. While the Abortion Act [1967] states that a doctor can grant an abortion when they are concerned about a woman's mental well-being, many doctors interpret this part of the act to meet the wide consensus that women should be able to choose. Such areas of medical ethics give rise to debates over whether the act should be changed to reflect society's views regarding abortions.

It is also the case that many medical legal outcomes that would have been considered unthinkable years ago are now being considered. One such outcome is euthanising a patient with their consent when their condition makes their life unbearable. Even when the abortion act was developed in 1967, the idea of euthanasia was unthinkable. However, as society's idea of what constitutes cruelty changes, so does its approach to whether we should be able to ask medical professionals to end life. These debates are often highlighted by landmark cases, such as the death of Tony Bland in the early nineties, which changed how we approach end of life care in this country. As turning off Tony's life support marked a turning point in end of life care, it makes sense that further changes are on the horizon.

The Deeper Aspects of Medical Law and Ethics

It is also the case that medical law and ethics step outside of what the law currently defines, and take arguments onto a more philosophical level. This can be seen in the way mental health classifications and treatments are approached. While some do not see any problems with the way our current mental health care system operates, others feel that it acts as a prison that is used to trap those who we see as less favourable in society. These arguments have been explored for many years by philosophers, but are continuing to rise in popularity across the field of medical law and ethics.

In more practical terms, medical law and ethics can be used to determine more challenging issues, such as patient resource allocation. In a cash strapped NHS, many doctors and hospital managers find themselves facing difficult choices. Such choices can include whether to administer life saving treatment to one person, or to use that money to enhance the life of 10 others. These choices are faced by healthcare professionals everyday, and can often lead to medical legal cases when patients and their families do not feel that the right decision has been taken.

Careers in Medical Law and Ethics

Many universities offer postgraduate courses that allow legal professionals to move into the field of medical law and ethics. While some people choose to take on these courses following the successful completion of their LLB and/or LPC, others may choose to wait a while, or they may move into the medical law and ethics field from other similar backgrounds.

One academic route chosen by those who want to work in medical law and ethics is the LLM route. Alternatively, a master's in medical law and ethics can be taken. Both of these postgraduate routes can lead to further professional development that will allow a legal professional to enhance their current pursuits. In addition to this, some individuals can head into careers outside of the solicitor and barrister spectrum, by choosing to become involved in policy making. For others, medical law and ethics can become a point of research, which leads to a career in academia and producing papers that influence the scope of the medical legal landscape. Regardless of the route chosen, this is a growing field that will not die out. As we will always be concerned with ethics as human beings, it stands to reason that they will always have a place in the field of medicine.

Medical law and ethics is something that we encounter every day, but we do not realise it. The laws we enjoy access to each time we encounter medical professionals ensure that our best interests are served. However, these ethics are only set in accordance with what we feel is socially acceptable as a society, which means they can change at any time. As society's ethical views change, so will the way medicine is approached; this makes working in medical law and ethics interesting, exciting, and beneficial.