In the 2002 blockbuster film SpiderMan, Peter Parker (a.k.a. SpiderMan) is cautioned by his Uncle Ben: “Remember, with great power comes great responsibility.” While Spider-Man’s uncle is credited with popularizing this cautionary statement, he is not alone in expressing the sentiment. Variations can be found in the New Testament, numerous political speeches worldwide, and even a 2015 Supreme Court opinion.
Managing the delicate balance between power and responsibility is nothing new to medical professionals. The concept is embedded within the Hippocratic Oath, by which physicians swear to use their knowledge of the healing arts for good and not abuse their patients. The relationship between provider and patient holds a special status in modern society. In addition to special legal protections created by statute, there are also ethical and professional medical standards designed to preserve the sanctity of the provider-patient relationship. Indeed, responsibly exercising the power entrusted to providers by their patients is intrinsic to the ethos of the profession.
Over the past few decades, this special relationship has also been recognized as a resource in combating certain social problems, including abuse and human trafficking. More recently, providers have been recruited to help confront other complicated social issues, including illegal immigration and reproductive rights. This societal encroachment on the individual providerpatient relationship results in healthcare providers increasingly being asked—and even compelled—to use their position and authority to serve a purpose beyond simply providing “good care” to their patients. In doing so, healthcare providers are being asked to act not only for the well-being of their individual patients, but also for the perceived well-being of the broader community. Consequently, providers increasingly find themselves in difficult predicaments, pitting their personal and professional duty to their patients against broader legal obligations to the community.
How can medical providers responsibly balance their different powers, especially given the frequent shifts of political and social currents that are often the catalysts for these powers being vested in them in the first place?
In short, preparation is key. A provider must be familiar with both legal and ethical parameters in order to make a decision that best satisfies their obligations to the patient and the community. It is empowering for providers and their staff to have policies in place to help guide those decisions. Moreover, providers benefit from prospectively identifying and having available resources on hand to consult—not only for themselves, but also for their patients. Providers will always owe a duty to their patients. Being armed with resources and guidance before being confronted with a difficult situation will help them responsibly exercise their power under any circumstance—no superpowers required.