Primum non nocere

A while ago I was accused of advocating that doctors should break the Hippocratic oath. That the cardinal rule of “First, do no harm” should be ignored. Setting aside that this phrase does not appear in the Hippocratic oath, what do we mean by harm in the context of medicine?

I was reminded of this by a post on Science Based Medicine by David Gorski in which he muses over the measure of patient satisfaction as a proxy for how well hospitals meet their obligations with regard to patient care. To kick it off the good doctor notes that many interventions used by modern medicine cause harm, often direct harm.

Does this mean that doctors are throwing out their obligation not to harm patients? No, because we recognise that the concept of harm in this case includes those harms that would occur were we to withhold treatment as well as recognising that the total harm is reliant on the amount of benefit obtained by the patient.

The accusation against me was in the context of my arguing against the claims of anti-vaccinationists that vaccines do more harm than good. I don’t want to rehash that argument here but I do want to dwell a bit on our concept of harm and how it applies in the medical arena.

One of the themes that return to over and over again on this blog is that of risk vs benefit. The amount of harm or risk can only be appropriately assessed in light of the benefit accrued. As pointed out by doctor Gorski there are many procedures that hurt, they hurt a lot. Should a doctor refuse to perform them then? Even if they could save a patient’s life?

Of course not.

It is plainly ridiculous to assert that short term harm out weighs long term benefit, it might but that calculation has to be made in each case. In many cases the benefit will be clear, in others less so. If a patient undergoes a painful procedure that is relatively short lived and then makes a full recovery then the choice is fairly simple. If the recovery is likely to be only partial and the patient’s quality of life is ever after severely reduced then we may weigh up the benefits of that treatment differently.

What then of treatments that are good for most but may harm a few? These are the tricky cases and it depends on a few variables. One is can we identify the persons that will be harmed,  second, how much harm are they likely to suffer and what percentage of the treatment population do they make up? Finally what total benefit will accrue to the population if treatment is green lit?

I listed these variables in the order of importance I estimate they have. If we can identify prospectively harmed persons then they may be removed from the treatment group, harm avoided. If this information is unavailable then we may move to the next criterion: how much harm will they suffer? If this is likely to be relatively mild then all to the good. If the harm is considerably more serious then we may stop the treatment altogether in order to avoid these instances. The last two variables may switch in order depending on the situation or individual values.

Should a vital treatment be withheld from the general population if a very small percentage with be greatly harmed by it? Frankly I don’t know. Help – is there a Medical Ethicist in the house?

Often I’ll find that the people who oppose modern medicine will emphasise the risks of medicine while over-hyping the benefits of alternative medicine. The claims that iatrogenic (caused by medical treatment) harms are enormous abound. This point of view seems completely ignore the benefits received by individuals and society by medicine in it’s current form*.

This seems perverse to me, the idea appears to be that any risk is unacceptable – a completely untenable position to my mind – every action carries risk. I take my life in my hands every time I drive to work, but the risks a relatively low and the benefits are more important to me – and the majority of other drivers I suspect. To argue that we should abstain from automotive transport until it is completely safe misses the point entirely. As does decrying the risks of the majority of medical science in the face of the undoubted benefit received.

To conclude this ramble, harm or risk is part of the human condition. Arguably the complete removal of risk is not only impossible but not even desirable**. We have to live with risk and harm, the key is to ensure we balance these against the good that comes from acting in the world to oppose even greater harms.


*This is quite an extreme view and I would hasten to add that I don’t think the majority of alternative medicine users (however you may break that group down) would subscribe to it, but it exists.

** Depending on how this might be achieved. Possibly we could make ourselves impervious to harm rather than removing everything that might harm us.

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