Dr. David Orentlicher - The Doctor’s Duty to Treat during Public Health Pandemics

November 21, 2018

Physicians assume a fundamental ethical duty to place the welfare of their patients above their own interests. Thus, for example, doctors must not exploit the patient–physician relationship for personal gain by accepting gifts from drug companies. But how far does the duty to patient welfare extend? Must physicians assume a serious risk to their own health to ensure that patients receive needed care? Dr. David Orentlicher addresses these questions in a recent article in the American Journal of Public Health.

In the past, physicians were expected to provide care during pandemics without regard to the risk to their own health. In recent decades, however, the duty to treat has suffered from erosion even while the risks to physicians from meeting the duty has gone down.

After exploring the historical evolution of the duty to treat and the reasons for the duty, Dr. Orentlicher concludes that restoring a strong duty to treat would protect patient welfare without subjecting physicians to undue health risks.