American Bioethics: Crossing Human Rights and Health Law Boundaries

By George J. Annas | Go to book overview
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8
Patient Rights

The physician-philosopher head of President George W. Bush's Bioethics Council, Leon Kass, wrote in 1991, and repeated in 2002, that although “bioethics is where the action is,” the action itself is “mostly talk” and abstract theory, with little impact on actual physician practice: “Though originally intended to improve our deeds, the reigning practice of ethics, if truth be told, has, at best, improved our speech.”1 There is, of course, some truth to this overgeneralization, and it helps explain why patients and their advocates turn to law rather than bioethics to improve health care and patient safety. Both modern bioethics and the modern patient rights movement can be seen as reactions to medical paternalism— but, in America at least, the patient rights movement has been considerably more powerful. Rights talk has even been seen as a substitute for a national health program, perhaps under the theory that rights in health care are much less expensive than are rights to health care.2 American law on patient rights is almost exclusively state law, and federal regulations, like the HIPAA medical record privacy regulations, are aberrations to this rule.3 Nonetheless, it is well worth considering whether a national patient bill of rights might help us move more decisively from bioethics talk to action in health care.

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