|Date(s):||May 1, 1847 to May 31, 1847|
|Tag(s):||Surgery, United States, Medicine, Ethics, History|
|Course:||“The History of Medicine and Public Health,” Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis|
One spring evening in May of 1847, Issac Hays, chairman of the newly established American Medical Association (AMA), stood from his seat surrounded by colleagues, having just finished creating the original code of ethics adopted by the AMA. The code, having since then been the standard of medical ethics in the United States, was modeled heavily on the ethical beliefs of the European physician ad author Thomas Percival, who created the first code of ethics. Up until a code was written and adopted in the U.S., there were no official national means of regulating proper ethical behavior in the healthcare field, and many states themselves lacked laws explicitly stating ethical expectations in the medical profession. Due to this, the code of ethics specifically touched on the need for doctors to recognize the entirety of the power they possessed to not take advantage of it.
This code of ethics was eventually commented on by Dr. Austin Flint, president of the AMA in 1883. In this commentary, Flint focused on the importance of physicians upholding their own sense of morality, a topic he felt worthy of extra attention. His commentary was divided into 3 sections: the responsibilities of physicians to their patients, and the duties patients are expected to uphold; the responsibilities physicians have to one another; and the accountability physicians are held to by the public.
This was a prime time for a code of ethics to be written and scrutinized, especially with the developments in surgery around that time. With the surgical field gaining popularity within the medical community, questions arose about surgeons’ morals in the operating room, when they were in control of another life. It was common for surgeons to learn to distance their emotions from their patients, which to a certain extent was to be expected—after all, they were cutting into another person before the development of anesthesia. It was expected of the doctor to remain faithful to his patient in accordance with his highest professional requirement—do no harm. There were concerns for physicians’ intentions and ethical accountability that were understandably called into question. The code of ethics was a way to unite all physicians in the states with a common goal, common standards, and a sense of accountability beyond their own conscience.