May a licensed healthcare professional refuse to treat a patient? Healthcare providers have legal, ethical and professional duties to address a patient’s needs that fall within the provider’s scope of practice. However, are doctors, and other health care personnel, required to treat any and all patients, even if doing so might cost them their lives? While this is an issue that has arisen with the recent Ebola outbreak, it is not a new issue and has been previously addressed.
History of Refusing to Treat
During the early HIV/AIDS era in the 1980s, when there was little known about the disease, there were physicians and other health care workers who refused to treat HIV infected patients. Accordingly, in 1992, the American Medical Association declared in an ethics opinion that “A physician may not ethically refuse to treat a patient whose condition is within the physician’s current realm of competence solely because the patient is seropositive for HIV. Persons who are seropositive should not be subjected to discrimination based on fear or prejudice.” AMA Opinion 9.131 (March 1992, updated June 1996 and June 1998).
Similarly, the American Dental Association stated in its Principles of Ethics and Code of Professional Conduct that, “[a] dentist has a general obligation to provide care to those in need. A decision not to provide treatment to an individual because the individual has AIDS or is HIV seropositive based solely on that fact is unethical.” American Dental Association, ADA Principles of Ethics and Code of Professional Conduct III § 4.A.1 (2012).
During the recent Ebola outbreak, healthcare personnel were once again refusing to treat infected patients. Is this acceptable? . . [Full text]