Empirical investigation of the ethical reasoning of physicians and molecular biologists - the importance of the four principles of biomedical ethics.

Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine 2:23 (2007) PMID 17961251 PMCID PMC2186350

This study presents an empirical investigation of the ethical reasoning and ethical issues at stake in the daily work of physicians and molecular biologists in Denmark. The aim of this study was to test empirically whether there is a difference in ethical considerations and principles between Danish physicians and Danish molecular biologists, and whether the bioethical principles of the American bioethicists Tom L. Beauchamp and James F. Childress are applicable to these groups. This study is based on 12 semi-structured interviews with three groups of respondents: a group of oncology physicians working in a clinic at a public hospital and two groups of molecular biologists conducting basic research, one group employed at a public university and the other in a private biopharmaceutical company. In this sample, the authors found that oncology physicians and molecular biologists employed in a private biopharmaceutical company have the specific principle of beneficence in mind in their daily work. Both groups are motivated to help sick patients. According to the study, molecular biologists explicitly consider nonmaleficence in relation to the environment, the researchers' own health, and animal models; and only implicitly in relation to patients or human subjects. In contrast, considerations of nonmaleficence by oncology physicians relate to patients or human subjects. Physicians and molecular biologists both consider the principle of respect for autonomy as a negative obligation in the sense that informed consent of patients should be respected. However, in contrast to molecular biologists, physicians experience the principle of respect for autonomy as a positive obligation as the physician, in dialogue with the patient, offers a medical prognosis based upon the patients wishes and ideas, mutual understanding, and respect. Finally, this study discloses utilitarian characteristics in the overall conception of justice as conceived by oncology physicians and molecular biologists from the private biopharmaceutical company. Molecular biologists employed at a public university are, in this study, concerned with allocation, however, they do not propose a specific theory of justice. This study demonstrates that each of the four bioethical principles of the American bioethicists Tom L. Beauchamp & James F. Childress - respect for autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence and justice - are reflected in the daily work of physicians and molecular biologists in Denmark. Consequently, these principles are applicable in the Danish biomedical setting.

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