Caring for Risky Patients: Duty or Virtue?
Journal of Medical Ethics 2008 June; 34(6): 458-462
The emergence several years ago of SARS, with its high rate of infection and death among healthcare workers, resurrected a recurring ethical question: do health professionals have a duty to provide care to patients with deadly infectious diseases, even at some substantial risk to themselves and their families? The conventional answer, repeated on the heels of the SARS epidemic, is that they do. In this paper, I argue that the arguments in support of such a duty are wanting in significant respects, and that the language of duty is simply not adequate to an understanding of all the moral dimensions of professional responses to the care of risky patients. Instead, we should speak the language of virtues and ideals if we want to do justice to the complexity of such harrowing circumstances.