Ethics, Healthcare and Social Work

Every part of healthcare involves ethics and since social workers touch every part of healthcare they are intimately involved with ethics. Ethics deals with what is good and bad as well as what is moral duty and obligation. Moral principles govern a person’s behavior or an activity. Ethics has a dedicated branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending and recommending concepts of right and wrong.

Bio ethics is a set of moral principles, beliefs and values that guide individuals in making choices about medical care.  Bio ethics involves the study of controversial ethics brought about by advances in biology and medicine.  Bio ethics also provides a system of moral principles which applies values and judgments to the practice of clinical medicine and scientific research.

Changes in medicine have created many of the ethical dilemmas facing healthcare providers today. Medical science can intervene in areas they never could before with new life prolonging, life sustaining treatments. 

An ethical situation arises  between allowing something to be done just because it is available and deciding if it is appropriate to allow it in a certain situation. Patients are better informed and questioning their healthcare providers more and asking for specific treatments. Again, these treatments may be available but not right for every patient. The litigious society of the world today makes physicians who may refuse or withhold certain treatments from some patients a legal target. Physicians are also much more aware of the costs of care which can influence their decision and possibly impacting a patient’s plan of care. Additionally, hospitals, geographic health region, and the government have different obligations that can negatively or positively influence decision making.

Health care ethics involves four main principles:

Autonomy: honor the patients who have the capacity to think, decide and act on one’s own free initiative to make their own healthcare decision

Beneficence: help patients advance their own good by promoting what is best for them so all actions benefit the patient

Non-maleficence: to do no harm by explaining all risks, side effects and ensuring benefits outweigh the harm from treatment

Social justice: to be fair and treat all “like” patients with the same treatments while also ensuring burdens and benefits are distributed equally among all groups

Autonomy is the equivalent of self-determination to social workers. Teaching, encouraging and guiding an individual toward making their own “good” decisions is a fundamental principle of social workers. The client effecting their own change through their own decisions is always at the forefront of a social workers intervention.

Beneficence is the same as empowering to social workers. Getting a client to understand their situation, accept the responsibility for their actions and develop a plan to change their lives for the better is a goal of all social work interactions with clients. Through taking control of their situation clients feel empowered to be successful.

Non-maleficence falls under the category of education to a social worker. Making sure individuals have the most correct, relevant and complete information regarding any decision impacting their lives is critical thinking on the part of social workers. Decisions can only be made with the information at hand so it is important to have accurate information to base a decision on.

Social justice and advocacy are interchangeable concepts for a social worker.  Both individuals and groups benefit from working with a social worker to find their voice and speak up for the change they seek. This can be on an individual level or community action.

As long as there are ethical issues in healthcare there will be social workers to help those in need and for that we say Thank You.


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