Ebola and the Ethics of Physicians

September 4, 2014
H. Steven Moffic, MD

In fighting Ebola in West Africa, healthcare givers have knowingly put their own lives at risk. If that isn't following the medical ethics principle of putting the patient first, what is?

PSYCHIATRIC VIEWS ON THE NEWS

From commenting yesterday on what many would consider to be the worst of human behavior -- ie, beheadings -- another current news story may exemplify the best.

In fighting the epidemic of Ebola in West Africa, physicians and other healthcare givers have knowingly put their own lives at risk. Ebola is indiscriminate in who it may infect and kill if one gets into its physical range of infectivity. If that isn't following the medical ethics principle of putting the patient first, what is?

Psychiatrists are physicians, too. While we are much less likely to encounter such medical risks as Ebola, we often do encounter risks to our psychological well-being. For example, to work best with those traumatized, empathy is essential. Psychological exposure to this trauma can cause mental health professionals to become secondarily traumatized.

Given the interconnectivity of people around the world, we are all at potential risk--whether from infection, toxins, nuclear war, computer sabotage, or climate change. Though our brains seem to be hard-wired to fear those who are different, ultimately we may have to overcome this tendency and adopt the medical ethics approach that holds that our patients encompass all of humanity, and that we need to fight for the conditions necessary for recovery and well-being around the world.