How to reveal disguised paternalism

Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy 13 (1):59-65 (2010)
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In a Swedish setting physicians are unlikely to give explicitly paternalistic reasons when asked about their attitudes towards patients’ involvement in decision-making. There is considerable risk that they will disguise their paternalism by giving ‘socially correct answers’. We suggest that disguised paternalism can be revealed with the help of indexes based on certain responses in postal questionnaires. The indexes were developed using material from a study examining attitudes of Swedish physicians to physician-assisted suicide (PAS). Apart from being asked about their attitudes, they were asked to prioritise between different arguments for and against PAS. One argument for PAS was: “PAS should be permitted out of respect for patients’ autonomy”. One argument against PAS was: “PAS should not be permitted since the non-maleficence principle in this case takes precedence over respecting patients’ autonomy”. Responses to the latter argument formed the cornerstone of a disguised-paternalism index, while an autonomy index was based on answers to the former argument. Applying our indexes to data from the PAS survey, we found that female GPs, surgeons, and older male physicians were least paternalistic. Among female physicians one finds both the most autonomy-respecting groups (female surgeons and GPs) and the least autonomy-respecting groups (female oncologists and psychiatrists); together with older male physicians in general, female GPs are the group displaying least disguised paternalism. We suggest that questionnaires exploring paternalism might be improved by including case-specific questions or statements by which to explore disguised paternalism. Here our indexes might be useful tools



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