The Physician’s Duty to Treat During Pandemics

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Physicians assume a primary ethical duty to place the welfare of their patients above their own interests. Thus, for example, physicians must not exploit the patient-physician relationship for personal financial gain through the practice of self-referral. But how far does the duty to patient welfare extend? Must physicians assume a serious risk to their own health to ensure that patients receive needed care?In the past, physicians were expected to provide care during pandemics without regard to the risk to their own health. In recent decades, however, the duty to treat during pandemics has suffered from erosion even while the risks to physicians from meeting the duty has gone down.After exploring the historical evolution of the duty to treat and the reasons for the duty, I conclude that restoring a strong duty to treat would protect patient welfare without subjecting physicians to undue health risks.

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