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Professional ethics are standards or codes of conduct established by the membership of a specific profession. Most professions have a code of ethics designed to describe what is right and wrong conduct, including acceptable behaviors and expectations of a profession’s membership. Professionals are expected to follow ethical guidelines in the practice of their profession.
Healthcare professionals are governed by ethical codes that demand a high level of integrity, honesty, and responsibility. It is the direct caregiver who is often confronted with complex ethical dilemmas in the delivery of patient care. Because of the ethical dilemmas facing healthcare providers, professional codes of ethics have been developed to provide guidance.
Codes of ethics are created in response to actual or anticipated ethical conflicts. Considered in a vacuum, many codes of ethics would be difficult to comprehend or interpret. It is only in the context of real life and real ethical ambiguity that the codes take on any meaning.
Codes of ethics and case studies need each other. Without guiding principles, case studies are difficult to evaluate and analyze; without context, codes of ethics are incomprehensible. The best way to use these codes is to apply them to a variety of situations and see what results. It is from the back and forth evaluation of the codes and the cases that thoughtful moral judgments can best arise.
The contents of codes of ethics vary depending on the risks associated with a particular profession. For example, ethical codes for psychologists define relationships with clients in greater depth because of the personal one-to-one relationship they have with their clients. Laboratory technicians and technologists, on the other hand, generally have little or no personal contact with patients but can have a significant impact on their care. In their ethical code, laboratory technologists pledge accuracy and reliability in the performance of tests. The importance of this pledge was borne out in a March 11, 2004, report by the Baltimore Sun, whereby state health officials discovered that a hospital’s laboratory personnel overrode controls in testing equipment showing results that might be in error and then mailed them to patients anyway.