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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

The principle of respect for autonomy – Concordant with the experience of oncology physicians and molecular biologists in their daily work?

Mette Ebbesen124* and Birthe D Pedersen34

Author Affiliations

1 Centre for Bioethics and Nanoethics, University of Aarhus, Aarhus C, Denmark

2 Visiting Researcher at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Georgetown University, Washington DC, USA

3 Department of Nursing Science, University of Aarhus, Aarhus C, Denmark

4 Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Aarhus, Aarhus C, Denmark

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BMC Medical Ethics 2008, 9:5  doi:10.1186/1472-6939-9-5

Published: 26 March 2008

Abstract

Background

This article presents results from a qualitative empirical investigation of how Danish oncology physicians and Danish molecular biologists experience the principle of respect for autonomy in their daily work.

Methods

This study is based on 12 semi-structured interviews with three groups of respondents: a group of oncology physicians working in a clinic at a public hospital and two groups of molecular biologists conducting basic research, one group employed at a public university and the other in a private biopharmaceutical company.

Results

We found that that molecular biologists consider the principle of respect for autonomy as a negative obligation, where the informed consent of patients or research subjects should be respected. Furthermore, molecular biologists believe that very sick patients are constraint by the circumstances to a certain choice. However, in contrast to molecular biologists, oncology physicians experience the principle of respect for autonomy as a positive obligation, where the physician in dialogue with the patient performs a medical prognosis based on the patient's wishes and ideas, mutual understanding and respect. Oncology physicians believe that they have a positive obligation to adjust to the level of the patient when providing information making sure that the patient understands. Oncology physicians experience situations where the principle of respect for autonomy does not apply because the patient is in a difficult situation.

Conclusion

In this study we explore the moral views and attitudes of oncology physicians and molecular biologists and compare these views with bioethical theories of the American bioethicists Tom L. Beauchamp & James F. Childress and the Danish philosophers Jakob Rendtorff & Peter Kemp. This study shows that essential parts of the two bioethical theories are reflected in the daily work of Danish oncology physicians and Danish molecular biologists. However, the study also explores dimensions where the theories can be developed further to be concordant with biomedical practice. The hope is that this study enhances the understanding of the principle of respect for autonomy and the way it is practiced.