Beneficence In Medical Ethics (Simply Explained)

Updated on: December 3, 2023
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Written By Dr Ollie

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Beneficence is a fundamental principle in medical ethics, which emphasises the healthcare professional’s duty to promote and protect the patient’s well-being.

As a core tenet, it underscores a doctor’s moral obligation to act in the patient’s best interests and, to the best of their ability, provide the highest standard of care.

While the general guideline of beneficence is to do good for the patient, navigating the complexity of practical situations can make its implementation challenging.

In this article, I’m going to further explore what beneficence means to both healthcare professionals and patients, as well as how it can be applied to ethical scenarios that frequently arise at medical school interviews.

What Is Beneficence?

Beneficence is a fundamental ethical principle in medical practice, emphasising the moral obligation of healthcare professionals to promote the well-being, interests, and welfare of their patients.

In short, it essentially means “do good.”

It represents the primary duty of healthcare practitioners to act in a manner that benefits the patient, striving for positive outcomes by offering services that support both physical and mental health.

Originating as one of the four pillars of ethics, alongside autonomy, justice, and non-maleficence, beneficence serves as a foundational concept within the field of medical ethics.

Beneficence Pixel Infographic

By adhering to this principle, medical professionals ensure that they make decisions grounded in the best interests of the patient.

This duty extends to the provision of appropriate medical treatment, as well as the prevention of harm or unnecessary suffering.

In practice, the principle of beneficence requires healthcare professionals to achieve a balance between the potential benefits and risks associated with medical interventions.

It is crucial to note that beneficence is not limited solely to treatments or interventions though; it also includes actions taken to promote the patient’s general well-being, such as offering educational resources, advocating for patient rights, and supporting the development of a therapeutic relationship with patients.

LEARN MORE: My comprehensive guide to the four pillars of medical ethics

Why Is Beneficence Important?

In the realm of medical ethics, beneficence plays a pivotal role in ensuring patient-centred care.

It emphasises healthcare professionals’ responsibility to do good for their patients by considering individual circumstances and understanding that what is beneficial for one person might not necessarily be the case for another.

Beneficence, as a guiding principle, leads to numerous moral rules that protect patients’ rights and strives to prevent harm.

It encompasses key aspects such as respecting patient dignity, privacy, and acting in their best interest.

A doctor giving a little boy a vaccine
A doctor giving a little boy a vaccination

By adhering to the principle of beneficence, medical professionals foster trust and forge stronger patient-provider relationships.

Moreover, beneficence promotes a comprehensive approach to healthcare by reinforcing the importance of balancing benefits against risks.

Healthcare practitioners are thus obliged to maximise possible benefits while minimising potential harms.

This creates a safe environment for patients, ensuring that their well-being is at the forefront of any medical decision-making process.

Beneficence Interview Question Examples

Questions about beneficence (and medical ethics in general) are highly likely to come up at almost any medical school interview.

These questions aim to assess applicants’ understanding, application, and ability to balance the principles of medical ethics in challenging scenarios.

In this section, I’m going to run through a couple of example ethics interview questions focused on beneficence and how you might go about answering them.

You’re About To Leave Work

You’re a GP working in a rural GP practice. You’re working slightly late on a Friday afternoon and are the last person left at your practice. Just as you go to start locking up to leave, a patient walks up to you complaining of being severely short of breath. How would the principle of beneficence influence your actions?

No one likes staying late at work on a Friday night. However, sometimes as a doctor, you will be required to stay at work even after your shift has officially finished.

A knee-jerk reaction could be to palm the patient off and tell them to come back on Monday. However, this could put the patient at serious risk if they’re suffering from an acute medical problem.

What would be best for the patient is if you assessed them then and there to see if they needed an ambulance calling or whether they would be safe at home over the weekend.

Therefore, the principle of beneficence would require you to stay at work slightly later than you’d have otherwise liked!

An Unconscious Patient

A fifty-two-year-old man collapses in the street, complaining of severe pain in his chest. By the time he reaches the hospital, he’s unconscious and has a slow and irregular heartbeat. You believe he’s having a heart attack and urgently needs to have heart surgery. However, due to being unconscious, the patient isn’t able to tell you whether he’d want this procedure.

Although the patient is unconscious, we can be pretty sure that this heart surgery is in the patient’s best interests.

If he doesn’t have a procedure to open up the vessels around his heart he’s very likely going to die.

Acting in the patient’s best interests here means performing the surgery even if the patient can’t explicitly consent to it.

It’s the principle of beneficence overriding the need to get informed consent for procedures.

An End Of Life Patient

You are working in palliative care and a terminally ill patient requests euthanasia to end their suffering. However, euthanasia is not legal in the UK. What would you do in this situation, keeping in mind the principles of beneficence, non-maleficence, and autonomy?

This question challenges a candidate to explore how the pillars of medical ethics may sometimes collide and how they would approach conflicts while respecting the patient’s autonomy, despite the legal and ethical complexities.

Beneficence says “do good” but can killing someone ever be considered to be “good?”

During the interview, you should strive to demonstrate your ability to navigate complex situations while upholding the principles of medical ethics.

Confidence, knowledge, and clear communication are key aspects of delivering a good answer here; however, I discuss the topic in a lot more detail in this article about the ethical dilemmas surrounding euthanasia.

Balancing Beneficence With Other Ethical Principles

Balancing beneficence with the other ethical pillars of non-maleficence, justice, and autonomy is essential to ensure a comprehensive approach to patient care.

Non-Maleficence

Non-maleficence is the principle of “do no harm” and is closely related to beneficence.

It requires healthcare professionals to minimise harm to patients while promoting their well-being.

Balancing beneficence with non-maleficence involves careful consideration of potential risks, benefits, and the patient’s desires.

For example, a medical intervention might greatly increase a patient’s quality of life but also pose significant risks.

In this case, the healthcare provider must weigh the potential benefits against the potential harm to determine the best course of action that adheres to both principles.

Justice

Justice in medical ethics refers to the fair and equitable distribution of resources and treatment.

Balancing beneficence with justice may involve identifying situations when providing care to one patient may negatively impact others due to limited resources or competing priorities.

Healthcare professionals must carefully consider both individual patient needs and broader public health concerns when making decisions.

One approach to balancing these principles involves prioritising care for patients who are most in need or have the greatest potential to benefit.

This ensures that resources are allocated in a fair and just manner while maintaining a commitment to beneficence.

Autonomy

Autonomy is the principle that recognises the right of patients to make informed decisions about their own healthcare.

Balancing beneficence with autonomy can be challenging, as healthcare providers may sometimes disagree with a patient’s preferences or choices.

In these cases, it is crucial to respect the patient’s autonomy while also promoting their best interests.

A classic example of this that frequently comes up at interview is that of the Jehovah’s Witness.

To achieve this balance, healthcare providers should engage in open communication and ensure that patients are well-informed about the risks and benefits of different treatment options.

This allows patients to make informed decisions, enabling healthcare providers to respect their autonomy while still upholding the principle of beneficence.

Final Thoughts

The principle of beneficence is a foundational aspect of medical ethics. It’s essential for fostering trust between patients and healthcare professionals, as it underlines the commitment to act in the best interests of the patient.

This includes providing appropriate treatment, offering preventive care, and addressing the emotional and psychological needs of the patient.

Healthcare professionals must continuously strive to balance the requirements of beneficence and the other pillars of medical ethics in order to provide the highest quality of care to their patients.

About the author
After studying medicine at the University of Leicester, Dr Ollie now works as a junior doctor in London. His interests include medical education and expedition medicine, as well as having a strong belief in the importance of widening access to medicine.