Duke Physicians: Clinicians Have Ethical Obligation To Consider Alternative Medicine

DURHAM, N.C. -- Even physicians who subscribe to only conventional medical therapies have an ethical obligation to help their patients who are considering non-traditional treatments, Duke University Medical Center physicians say in Wednesday's (Nov. 11) edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

In the article, described as a "policy perspective," Drs. Jeremy Sugarman and Larry Burk tackle the question of the traditional clinician's role in a patient's use of alternative medical treatment. The issue focuses on alternative medicine.

"We have taken a hard look at the current role of the clinician -- the doctor practicing conventional medicine -- in relation to alternative medicine. That is, what do we know from the perspective of good medical care ... and what role, if any, do clinicians have regarding alternative therapy?" said lead author Sugarman, a physician and medical ethicist.

The answer, he said, is that in individual cases, physicians should apply medicine's longstanding ethical principles: respect for persons, nonmaleficence, beneficence and justice.

But they emphasize that clinicians' obligations regarding alternative medicine center on whether those therapies have been shown through rigorous examination to be safe and effective. If the therapies are not tested and proven, doctors don't have the same obligation, Sugarman said.

With the rising interest in alternative methods of care, Sugarman and Burk, a radiologist and director of Duke's office of integrative medicine education, said it is important to examine the principles of care common to both conventional and alternative treatment. Clinicians following conventional medicine rely on scientific method in making decisions about appropriate therapy, while practitioners of alternative medicine treatments, such as acupuncture and therapeutic touch, generally do not. But the health-related goals of the two approaches

Contact: Karen Hines
Duke University Medical Center

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