Renewed public attention is being paid to ethics today. There are governmental ethics commissions, research ethics boards, and corporate ethics committees. Some of these institutional entities are little more than window dressing, whereas others are investigative bodies called into being, for example, on suspicion that financial records have been altered or data have been presented in a deceptive manner. However, many of these groups do important work, and the fact that they have been established at all suggests that we are not as certain as we once were, or thought we were, about where the moral boundaries are and how we would know if we overstepped them. In search of insight and guidance, we turn to ethics. In the professions, which are largely self-regulating, and especially in the medical profession, whose primary purpose is to be responsive to people in need, ethics is at the heart of the enterprise.
Responsibility to the patient in contemporary clinical ethics entails maximal patient participation, as permitted by the patient’s condition, in decisions regarding the course of care. For the surgeon, this means arriving at an accurate diagnosis of the patient’s complaint, making a treatment recommendation based on the best knowledge available, and then talking with the patient about the merits and drawbacks of the recommended course in light of the patient’s life values. For the patient, maximal participation in decision making means having a conversation with the surgeon about the recommendation, why it seems reasonable and desirable, what the alternatives are, if any, and what the probable risks are of accepting the recommendation or pursuing an alternative course.
This view of ethically sound clinical care has evolved over the latter half of the 20th century from a doctor-knows-best ethic that worked reasonably well for both patients and physicians at a time when medical knowledge was limited and most of what medicine could do for patients could be carried in the doctor’s black bag or handled in a small, uncluttered office or operating room. What practical steps can be taken by clinicians to evaluate patient attitudes and behavior relative to the patient’s cultural context so that the physician and patient together can reach mutually desired goals of care? Marjorie Kagawa-Singer and her colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles, developed a useful tool for ascertaining patients’ levels of cultural influence. It goes by the acronym RISK:
Resources: On what tangible resources can the patient draw, and how readily available are they?
Individual identity and acculturation: What is the context of the patient’s personal circumstances and her degree of integration within her community?
Skills: What skills are available to the patient that allow him to adapt to the demands of the condition?
Knowledge: What can be discerned from a conversation with the patient about the beliefs and customs prevalent in her community and relevant to illness and health, including attitudes about decision making and other issues that may affect the physician-patient relationship.