Promoting patient autonomy: Looking back

The pinnacle of the physician's clinical skills is his ability to develop the autonomy of his patients in the management of their health affairs. To do this requires the forging of a relationship in which patients' attitudes toward their health and illness are products of the doctor-patient relationship rather than unilateral behavior by either one. Modern medicine is beset with problems that make it difficult for physicians to develop and exercise the skills that lead to patient autonomy. An erosion of public confidence in physicians is being caused by several mojar forces that include: (1) the power of science over life; (2) medical technology's dehumanizing effect; (3) legalization of medical ethics; and (4) industrialization and commercialization of medical care. To restore the kind of confidence that makes the physician an effective proponent of his patient's autonomy will require a major emphasis upon all aspects of medical ethics in the medical curriculum and in medical practice. Clinical investigation of this subject is highly appropriate. Clinical faculties should be developed in greater numbers who are authorities in the humanities as well as in science. Our medical schools need also to develop and to utilize models of health care in which relations with patients are personalized, continuous, and comprehensive so that ethical ideals such as patient autonomy can be demonstrated by precept and example, and can also be researched.
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