Doctor Ethics Survey: What Would Your MD Do?

By Daniel J. DeNoon
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Nov. 19, 2012 -- What would your doctor do in a tricky ethical situation?

Medscape, WebMD's physician web site, recently surveyed 24,000 doctors to find out. They asked doctors how they'd handle a wide range of ethical dilemmas, including sex with patients, assisted suicide, abortion, end-of-life care, and dealing with terminal illness.

Some of their answers may surprise you. Here's what Medscape heard from doctors in a wide range of medical specialties:

Sex With Patients

Is it ever OK for a doctor to have sex with a patient?

Only 1% of doctors think so, if the person is still a patient. Another 22% think it's OK if they wait until six months after the person stops being a patient. And 9% say, "It depends." The other 68% say it's never OK.

Assisted Suicide

When asked if physician-assisted suicide should be allowed in some situations, 47% of doctors said "yes," 40% said "no," and 13% said, "It depends."

Defensive Medicine

Would your doctor perform an unnecessary operation or other procedure just because not doing it might result in a malpractice lawsuit?

A whopping 23% of doctors said they would. Just over half (55%) said they would not, but 22% said, "It depends."

Intensive Care for Dying Newborns

This is possibly the hardest question in the survey: Is it right to provide intensive care to a newborn who will either die soon or survive but have an objectively terrible quality of life? Yes: 34%. No: 27%. It depends: 39%.

Lying to Patients

If a patient wants a treatment that his or her doctor believes isn't needed, would the doctor ever prescribe a fake treatment? Yes: 34%. No: 48%. It depends: 18%.

If it would "bolster their spirit," would doctors not tell patients about a fatal illness? One in 10 doctors (10%) said they would, while 18% said it depends on the situation. Most doctors (72%) said they always tell it like it is.

Should doctors always admit making mistakes, even if the mistake caused no harm? Most doctors (63%) said they'd come clean. But 16% said they'd cover up their error, and 21% said, "It depends."

Lying to Insurance Companies

To make sure your insurance company covers your treatment, would your doctor exaggerate the severity of your condition -- or even lie about it?

Only 13% of doctors say they would, while another 12% said it would depend on the situation. An overwhelming 75% of doctors said they won't do it.

Dropping Patients Over Insurance

Would your longtime doctor stop accepting your insurance if your insurer didn't pay well enough?

Only 41% of doctors said they would not, while 27% said they would, and 32% said, "It depends."

End-of-Life Treatment

Would your doctor give you treatments to keep you alive, even if such treatments had no chance of saving your life? Yes: 35%. No: 24%. It depends: 41%.

If your family said to end treatment, would your doctor keep on treating you if he or she thought you had a chance to recover? Yes: 23%. No: 32%. It depends: 42%.


Would doctors perform abortions "in certain situations" if it went against their personal beliefs? Most doctors (51%) said they would. But 36% said they would not, and 13% said it depends on the situation.

Treating Pain vs. Avoiding Addiction

Would your doctor undertreat your pain for fear you might become addicted to pain drugs?

Only 15% of doctors would go that far. Nearly two-thirds (65%) never would undertreat pain for that reason, while 20% said it depends on the situation.

Free Lunch

If a pharmaceutical company sales representative took your doctor to lunch, could your doctor remain unbiased in his or her prescribing habits?

Yes, 72% of doctors said. But 20% said they could not claim to remain unbiased, and 8% said it depends on the situation.


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SOURCES: Medscape 2012 Ethics Report. News release, Medscape.

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