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Medicine, miracles & ethics

New knowledge must go hand in hand with ethics in medical profession

india Updated: Jan 22, 2006 23:32 IST

In the late eighties, one of India's most wanted terrorists was brought to a Chandigarh hospital. He was badly hurt in a gun battle. Dozens of police officers I grilled him on his hospital bed while he struggled for life. The cops asked the doctors to keep him "alert" at whatever cost. The doctors pleaded that their duty was to help the patient survive so that he could be interrogated, tried or hanged later.

A police officer argued that the interrogation would lead to more arrests, busting hideouts and recovery of weapons, eventually preventing hundreds of innocent people from being killed. Later, the medical staff walked out though one young doctor decided to help on his own volition. The matter of choice for everyone lay in the gray area of ethics, between territories of right and wrong.

The medical profession is full of evocative choices between life and death. The chaos is compounded by hi-tech inventions like organ transplant, sex selection, stem cell research and genetics. We often hear reports of unscrupulous doctors injecting patients with steroids or stem cells even though the therapy's effects are yet to be proven. HT Research examines the lack of medical ethics in India and what the society needs to do about it.

Many ethical issues arise out of commercialisation but we can't wish away private health care. Saikat Neogi argues that health care and pharma are among India's high growth industries pushing up its GDP growth rate. The logic, however, can't prevent us from expecting them to follow corporate and medical ethics.

A range of hi-tech inventions has baffled the society for long. Cooshalle Samuel raises some of these points in the next write up to fathom what lies ahead and how fast we need to change. After all, most other countries are trying to evolve institutionalised mechanisms to deal with these issues.

Do we need laws to cover every aspect of organ transplant, clinical research or negligence? What if the laws are followed only for subversion? An odd doctor like Prof. Sam path Kumar at AIIMS may have stuck his neck out by listing doctors' duties and patients' rights but that is more like an exception. Isn't it the society's responsibility to intervene in processes around it? Aloke Tikku argues in the concluding section that the task of addressing ethics should be taken up by the civil society with the help of the medical profession.

The issue takes us back to the age-old debate of virtue and ethics. The Hippocratic oath addressed the issue around 400 BC. Socrates, a philosopher of the same vintage, identified knowledge with virtue and suggested that the society needed both. It is imperative that the new knowledge must beget new ethics and the society must prepare itself at every point. Socrates prescribed then: "The knowledge can be learnt, so can be virtue."

First Published: Nov 28, 2005 02:45 IST