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Why Bioethics Matters: Four Key Takeaways

When the WHO declared a pandemic last year, the field of bioethics took center stage in public life. Suddenly, conversations about quality of health care, trust in medicine, and access to vaccines were taking place at dinner tables around the world. But what else does bioethics encompass and why does it matter? Bioethics centers issues such as patient rights, reproductive technology and medical regulation. In a lecture entitled “Why Bioethics Matters,” Dr. Robert Klitzman defines four underlying principles: autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence, and justice. Here are four takeaways from Dr. Klitzman’s lecture.

1. We have to always consider the “human side” of medicine. 

Dr. Klitzman consistently emphasizes the importance of paying attention to underlying issues in medicine which pertain to an individual’s quality of life. He says health care providers should question the assumptions they make and consider the “social, psychological, moral, cultural and ethical issues in health care.” That is where bioethics comes in. However, as it is a relatively new field, there are several complex questions and issues to work through as the research advances. 


2. We must examine history to learn from ethical failures in health care.

Bioethics is crucial because devastating mistakes have been made by the medical community in the name of advancing research. Dr. Klitzman offers examples of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which scientists used African American men to study untreated syphilis, as well as the brutal experiments conducted on human beings by Nazis. The goal of bioethics is to prevent these acts from being carried out under the guise of science. 


3. There are fundamental philosophical questions to consider when approaching bioethics. 

Why should health care be considered a right? What treatments and services should every person be given equal, immediate access to? These are the basic dilemmas surrounding ethical health care. However, bioethics aims to respond to even more complicated and controversial questions. Can organs be taken for donation once someone is “brain dead,” but while the heart and lungs are still working through a machine? Will new gene editing technologies like CRISPR worsen inequality, with wealthy families using the ability to pick traits to design specific, potentially healthier, embryos? The medical community will continue to encounter these questions as research progresses, and as the decisions made will impact all of us, it is vital to prepare for such challenges. 


4. It is important to remember the perspective of the patient

Dr. Klitzman shares several impactful stories to highlight the importance of considering a patient’s perspective. He shares his family’s experience of deciding whether or not to treat his father’s leukemia with an experimental chemotherapy treatment, and how that impacted his view on end of life quality and care. In his book, When Doctors Become Patients, Dr. Klitzman collects stories from doctors about the lessons they learned being on the other side of serious illness. The clarity of options provided to patients and language used by doctors are two key elements of improving care. While writing the book, Dr. Klitzman realized that when you, yourself, or a loved one faces mortality, you truly realize the incredible importance of the emotional, social, and psychological aspects of treatment.


Learn about Columbia University’s Bioethics M.S. program