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According to William Ruddick, the wide field usually referred to as “medical ethics” comprises a range of disciplines, including medical ethics (primarily, medical doctor-centred), and healthcare ethics (including nurses and other healthcare providers), clinical ethics (focused on hospital case decisions with the aid of diverse committees and consultants), and bioethics (including general issues of reproduction, fair distribution of organs and other scarce life-saving resources, and protection of the biosphere). All discussions of medical ethics proceed from the assumption that all things being equal, all patients have moral status. As Matjaž Zwitter observes in a chapter on “Moral Status”, “There should be no doubt that all of us with a capability of deciding about ourselves have moral status.” Zwitter further points out that only beings with moral status can be meaningfully said to have rights.

However, in our time, the misconception is widespread that science, of which medicine is a part, is all about “objective” observation of facts without any consideration of values (standards by which we judge some things to be good or bad, right or wrong, beautiful or ugly, and so on). Nevertheless, we human beings cannot live without values, because it is they that make life truly human by enabling us to choose our goals and the appropriate means of attaining them. Thus, in the introduction to his Medical Ethics: A Very Short Introduction, psychiatrist Tony Hope writes, “As my clinical experience grew so I became increasingly aware that ethical values lie at the heart of medicine. Much emphasis during my training was put on the importance of using scientific evidence in clinical decision-making. Little thought was given to justifying, or even noticing, the ethical assumptions that lay behind the decisions. So I moved increasingly towards medical ethics, wanting medical practice, and patients, to benefit from ethical reasoning.” In what follows, I examine the viability of the doctor-patient relationship, undergirded by medical ethics, in the era of COVID-19.

Principles of medical ethics in the era of COVID-19

One of the best-known texts associated with medical ethics is the Hippocratic Oath authored in ancient Greece about 2400 years ago. It required a person being admitted to the position of a medical doctor to swear by a number of healing gods to uphold certain ethical standards. The oath established several principles of medical ethics that are still considered crucial to the conduct of a medical doctor today. At the heart of medical ethics are questions regarding what is morally acceptable or morally unacceptable for a doctor to do in the course of caring for the sick. Three of the key issues in medical ethics are commitment on the part of the doctor to do only good to the patient, to respect the patient’s right to accept or decline a medical procedure, and to conduct medical research in line with sound ethical principles.

Doing only good to the patient

According to William Ruddick, the Hippocratic injunction “Strive to help, but above all, do no harm” is the ruling moral maxim in the doctor-patient relationship. In current discussion, this maxim has been codified in oft-cited principles of beneficence (action to promote the good/welfare) and non-maleficence (refraining from doing evil). For the doctor to achieve these noble goals, he or she must utilize their medical knowledge in a free atmosphere in which their only concern is their patient’s well-being, without having to worry about demands from an elaborate medical care bureaucracy. Yet in the era of COVID-19, the doctor has been turned into a functionary of just such a bureaucracy, receiving instructions from local and global health authorities, and being stopped from using certain medications, even if he/she and his/her patient would have liked to use them.

Respecting informed consent

The principle of informed consent stipulates that the patient has a right to accept or decline a medical procedure after being duly furnished with information about what it entails and the possible positive and negative impacts arising from it. As I indicated in COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates in the Light of Public Health Ethics, the medical ethical principle of informed consent is based on the conviction that each and every human being is endowed with intrinsic infinite worth (dignity) and human agency (the capacity of the person to act out of his/her own uniquely human viewpoint). Underlying the two considerations is the assumption that the human person is a ‘know-er’, since it is impossible to adequately enjoy human dignity and human agency without knowledge. All this implies the idea of human rights—certain entitlements due to every person by virtue of his/her humanity.

Human dignity, human agency and human rights presume the autonomy of the individual. In his On Liberty, John Stuart Mill asserted the autonomy of the individual as follows:

“The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”

In a chapter on “Autonomy and Its Limitations”, Matjaž Zwitter highlights at least five characteristics of individual autonomy. Understood as the right to self-determination, autonomy includes the right to information and protection of privacy. In an ideal situation, a patient with full autonomy participates in all essential medical decisions, and consents to every invasive procedure. Nevertheless, even patients with full capacity have the right to transfer their autonomy to others such as family members, friends, or to their physicians. In cases where patients are unable to decide for themselves and therefore with limited autonomy, surrogate decision-making is justified. Nevertheless, a doctor is not morally obliged to respect a directive by a surrogate decision-maker if this directive is clearly against the patient’s interests. Some persons make advance directives, to be followed in case of their future incapacity to participate in decisions regarding their treatment. While such written or oral directives are helpful, their validity may be re-considered in situations that the person could not have foreseen at the time of making the advance directive.

In the era of COVID-19, the doctor has been turned into a functionary of just such a bureaucracy, receiving instructions from local and global health authorities.

Thus, in “COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates in the Light of Public Health Ethics”, I pointed out that in the light of the notions of human dignity, human agency and human rights manifesting in medical care as informed consent, any measures imposed on the patient in the name of containing COVID-19 is paternalism, that is, the treating of adults as though they were children. This is equally true in medical care where the doctor-patient relationship is in operation, as in public health policy where health authorities institute measures for the welfare of populations.

Research ethics in medicine

Progress in the medical field rides on research, but therein also lies the danger of the violation of the moral principles that ought to govern the doctor-patient relationship. Consequently, as Adebayo A. Ogungbure notes, the aim of medical research ethics is to ensure that research projects involving human subjects are carried out without causing harm to the subjects involved.

One of the most outrageous violations of medical research ethics was the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male”  of which Ogungbure writes:

“The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the African American Male was the longest experiment on human beings in the history of medicine and public health. Conducted under the auspices of the US Public Health Service (USPHS), the study was originally projected to last six months but ended up spanning forty years, from 1932 to 1972. The men used as subjects in the study were never told that they had the sexually transmitted disease. The term “bad blood” was coined to falsely depict their medical condition. The men were told that they were ill and promised free care. Offered therapy “on a golden platter”, they became willing subjects. The USPHS did not tell the men that they were participants in an experiment; . . .

Though the study was organised and managed from Washington, the participants dealt with a black nurse named Eunice Rivers, who helped with transportation to the clinic, free meals, even burials. The project did not stop until Peter Buxtun, a former PHS venereal disease investigator, shared the truth about the study’s unethical methods with an Associated Press reporter.”

As Ogungbure further explains, the health authorities went to great lengths to ensure that the men in the “Tuskegee Study” were denied treatment, even after penicillin had become the standard cure for syphilis in the mid-1940s. He points out that the ignominious study only came to an end when the Associated Press published a well-researched article about it by whistle-blowing reporter Jean Heller. As a result, writes Ogungbure, congressional hearings about the Study took place in 1973, and the following year the United States Congress passed legislation creating the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioural Research. Apologising for the Tuskegee Syphilis Study on 16 May 1997, President Bill Clinton described it as “deeply, profoundly, and morally wrong”.

Yet in the early years during which African Americans in Alabama were being ravaged by the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, Adolf Hitler’s regime in Germany was busy conducting grossly unethical research on segments of the population that he considered to be inferior to his mythical Aryan race in the name of eugenics (a set of beliefs and practices that aim to improve the genetic quality of a human population by excluding people and groups judged to be inferior or promoting those judged to be superior). Ogunbure explains that one of the consequences of the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany was the drafting of the Nuremberg Code by an international panel of experts on medical research, human rights and ethics, which served as the initial model for those few public and private research and professional organisations that voluntarily chose to adopt guidelines or rules for research involving human subjects.

Progress in the medical field rides on research, but therein also lies the danger of the violation of the moral principles that ought to govern the doctor-patient relationship.

The following are the ten basic principles of the Nuremberg Code: Seek the voluntary consent of the human subject; conduct only an experiment that is necessary, and whose results will promote the good of society; an experiment on humans ought to only follow experiments on animals; an experiment ought to avoid all unnecessary physical and mental suffering and injury; no experiments likely to cause death or disabling injury should be undertaken; the humanitarian importance of the problem to be solved by the experiment ought to exceed the degree of risk involved; the experimental subject should be protected against even remote possibilities of injury, disability or death; an experiment ought to be conducted only by scientifically qualified persons; the human subjects should be at liberty to opt out of an experiment at any stage; the scientist in charge must be prepared to terminate an experiment at any stage if he/she has any reason to believe that its continuation is likely to result in injury, disability or death.

Several other documents on medical research ethics have been issued since the Nuremberg Code, including the World Medical Association’s Declaration of Helsinki of 1964 which has been revised several times since, and Canada’s Belmont Report of 1979.

Centralisation killing the doctor-patient relationship 

One of the dominant trends in our day is the centralisation of services. Those of us who are older recall a time when the branch bank manager had considerable freedom to make decisions. Then, due to digitisation, came the motto “Every Branch is Your Branch”, because every branch was now directly link to the head office. What we were not told was that the branch manager would henceforth be a mere functionary who had to wait for decisions on every minor detail from the head office. We have witnessed similar developments in the university system, with the Commission for University Education (CUE) now having massive control over the operations of universities in Kenya, so that although there are over forty public universities in the country, CUE requires all of them to operate along the same lines, leaving very little room for lecturers to exercise the time-honoured academic freedom.

Similarly, as hospitals have grown in physical size as well as in the number of personnel, so have their centralizing bureaucratic procedures (“red tape”). Doctors have to comply with elaborate protocols put in place by hospital management to avoid or reduce the number of court cases filed against the hospitals. Similarly, the elaborate chains of command pile pressure on doctors to comply with the policies of the hospitals even when those policies are contrary to patients’ interests. For example, one leading hospital chain in Kenya requires doctors to “request” three different tests on every patient suspected of having malaria, significantly raising the patients’ bills. If the results show that patients do have malaria, doctors in the hospital chain are again duty-bound to administer only a specific set of drugs. In short, doctors have very little say in that whole process.

Furthermore, hospitals have now become centres for gathering detailed information about patients for purposes other than the patients’ welfare. Many of my Kenyan readers have probably noticed that they can only purchase drugs or have tests done in private hospitals after giving their phone numbers to the personnel at the front desk. This enables the hospitals to access a patient’s personal records for the purpose of building a detailed history of all the drugs and tests that he/she has procured from that hospital over the years. This is precisely the kind of information which large pharmaceutical companies are eager to buy from the hospitals for a handsome price. In the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the pharmaceuticals use artificial intelligence to analyse the massive information (“big data”) to get a  very clear picture of trends in the health of individuals and populations, thereby enabling them to design business plans that bring them massive profits.

As hospitals have grown in physical size as well as in the number of personnel, so have their centralizing bureaucratic procedures.

The death of the doctor-patient relationship on the back of intense centralisation has already taken a huge toll on the quality of health in hospitals in Kenya. According to the “Kenya Patient Safety Survey” conducted by the Ministry of Health in 2013, a patient’s safety could not be guaranteed in a majority of medical facilities in the country: only 13 hospitals out of 493 public and private health facilities in 29 counties surveyed achieved a score greater than one on an ascending scale of 0-3. The report stated, “Overall safety compliance was relatively poor, with less than one per cent of public facilities and only about two per cent of private facilities achieving a score greater than one in all five areas of risks assessed.” For instance, less than 10 per cent achieved a score greater than one in providing safe clinical care to patients. Of the 13 that scored more than one, 11 were private facilities, while only two were public. Furthermore, less than six per cent of public hospitals achieved a score greater than one in having a competent workforce. According to the report, this state of affairs had in some instances resulted in death.

Besides, in mid-2015, twenty-eight children in Busia County became partially paralysed due to medical malpractice. According to The Standard, the children had partial paralysis arising from injections given in the six months between December 2014 and June 2015, although those with severe paralysis reported initial complaints after treatment in 2013. The Standard quoted then Cabinet Secretary James Macharia as stating, “Our initial investigations point towards medical malpractice from inappropriate injection techniques as the primary cause of partial paralysis in all the 28 children.”

This is precisely the kind of inforamation which large pharmaceutical companies are eager to buy from the hospitals for a handsome price.

Yet in the era of COVID-19, the heavy centralisation of hospital operations that is stifling the traditional doctor-patient relationship has moved to an unprecedented high level. COVID-19 testing and treatment are heavily centralised and meticulously directed from the highest health authorities in each country. In many countries, doctors are strictly forbidden to use COVID-19 vaccines and therapies that have not yet been approved by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and adopted by their own top health authorities. Besides, countries are required to share their data on COVID-19 infections, hospitalisations, vaccinations and deaths with the WHO. Many health authorities at country level run online COVID-19 databases through which citizens can request for vaccination, download their vaccination certificates, and show proof of vaccination. Various governments also have arrangements among themselves to verify the authenticity of international travellers’ vaccination certificates/passports.

Furthermore, David Ngira and John Harrington inform us that generally, WHO recommendations are used as a form of quality control by domestic regulators who view them as a guarantee of safety and effectiveness. Ngira and Harrington also point out that many African states have relied wholly on the WHO Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety given their weak national drug regulators and the limited capacity of the Africa Centre for Disease Control (CDC). The Africa CDC itself deems vaccines safe for use by member states on the basis of WHO recommendations. This means that the doctor no longer has the latitude to give his/her patient guidance strictly on the basis of his/her medical training and experience, but rather on the basis of protocols formulated by local and global health authorities.

Thus in the face of intense centralisation of medical care in the era of COVID-19, time-honoured principles of medical ethics such as the single-minded promotion of the good of the patient, confidentiality, respect for the patient’s right to informed consent, and the imperative for moral integrity in medical research, all of which held the doctor personally responsible for what he/she did in the course of his/her work, are inconceivable in a situation in which a doctor only acts on “orders from above”. The loser in this undesirable paradigm shift is the patient, and the winner the wealthy who have turned medical care into a business. I recently heard a senior Israeli medical professor state that when politics is mixed with science, all that remains is politics. To which I add that when medical care is mixed with business, all that remains is business.