Limits on patient responsibility

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29 Scopus citations


The medical profession and medical ethics currently place a greater emphasis on physician responsibility than patient responsibility. This imbalance is not due to accident or a mistake but, rather is motivated by strong moral reasons. As we debate the nature and extent of patient responsibility it is important to keep in mind the reasons for giving a relatively minimal role to patient responsibility in medical ethics. It is argued that the medical profession ought to be characterized by two moral asymmetries: (1) Even if some degree of responsible behavior from patients is called for, placing the dominant emphasis on professional responsibility over patient responsibility is largely correct. The value of protecting the right to refuse treatment and arguments against paternalism block a more expansive account of patient responsibility and support a strong notion of professional responsibility. (2) Insofar as we do want to encourage an increase in patient responsibility, we have good reasons to emphasize prospective rather than retrospective notions of responsibility in clinical practice. Concerns about patient vulnerability along with the determined factors in disease leave little room for blame at the bedside. These two asymmetries generate normative limits on any positive account of patient responsibility.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)189-206
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Medicine and Philosophy
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2005


  • Informed refusal
  • Non-adherence
  • Paternalism
  • Patient responsibility
  • Physician-patient relationship
  • Vulnerability

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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