A new WebMD survey shows that physicians wrestle with ethical decisions daily, including end-of-life questions, pain treatments, privacy concerns and medical errors.
"Physicians are trying to do the right thing, but they are often in situations where there may be no easy answers," says Steven Zatz, executive vice president of professional services for WebMD.
"I think the main message is that practicing physicians are on almost a daily basis dealing with some pretty substantial issues," he adds.
Over 10,000 physicians responded to the August 2010 survey, released last week. Many offered additional comments, says Zatz, which gave the survey-takers more insight into doctors' ethical struggles.
One question in the survey asked: "Would you ever recommend or give life-sustaining therapy when you judged that it was futile?"
About 24% of doctors said yes, 37% said no, and 39% said "it depends." One physician who answered yes recalled: "I once had a terminal patient who wanted to see his granddaughter before he died, so I prolonged his intravenous therapy for 3 days until she arrived. He died the same night."
•Should physician-assisted suicide be allowed in some cases? Yes, 46%; no, 41%; it depends, 13%.
•Are there times when it's acceptable to cover up or avoid revealing a mistake if that mistake would not cause harm to the patient? Yes, 19%; no, 60%; it depends, 21%.
•Would you ever prescribe a treatment that's a placebo, simply because the patient wanted treatment? Yes, 24%; no, 58%; it depends, 18%.
When asked what a physician's biggest moral dilemma was, responses ranged from reporting an incompetent or impaired colleague to owning up after making a medical error to breaking physician/patient confidentiality when one half of a couple is HIV positive and the other half doesn't know it.
"Today's doctors face more frequent and more complex bioethical dilemmas than in former times," says Thomas Murray, president of The Hastings Center, a bioethical research institute in Garrison, N.Y., in a press statement.
"If a physician recognizes that he or she is having a tough ethical dilemma, it shows that this is a morally conscious individual trying to do the right thing," Murray says.
By Mary Brophy Marcus, USA TODAY