A Survey Method for Investigating Ethical Decision Making in Family Practice
BACKGROUND: The tension between respect for patient autonomy versus concern for patient welfare is a challenging ethical issue for physicians. The purpose of this research was to describe a method for analyzing ethical decisions and to report the results of a survey of ethical decision making among family physicians.
METHODS: We developed a survey instrument that used simulated case scenarios, each of which posed an ethical dilemma. The ethical problems on the survey included the extent to which diagnostic information should be revealed to patients, the extent to which physicians should become involved in patients' life-style issues, and how to deal with patients' family problems. We mailed the questionnaire to 1,300 US family physicians.
RESULTS: Six hundred seventy-four physicians responded. Respondents did not deal with the simulated ethical problems in a uniform manner and often tended to respond more to specific details of a case rather than the overall ethical dilemma posed. Physicians who chose a course of action giving patients more control were motivated by factors that showed respect for patient autonomy. On the other hand, physicians who chose a course of action giving patients less control were not motivated by factors suggesting a concern for patient welfare.
CONCLUSIONS: Based on responses to simulated case scenarios, family physicians did not demonstrate a uniform approach but rather a more contextual one. Respect for patient autonomy was linked to family physicians' reported courses of action.