Ethics in Health Care: What You Need to Know

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A caregiver and patient in a wheelchair.

Healthcare administrators play a significant role in establishing the programs and environments that directly affect patient care delivery within their health systems. Dilemmas often arise that require an administrator to make difficult decisions, many of which include an ethical component. Being prepared for these situations is why ethical leadership and decision-making are key components of healthcare administration degree programs. Both skills are necessary for future leaders who are seeking to navigate evolving U.S. healthcare challenges.

Advanced degree programs, such as a Master of Health Administration, can help mid-career professionals develop a fundamental, durable ethical compass, along with the ability to analyze situations for their ethical components.

Ethical Issues in Healthcare Management

Healthcare managers focus on optimizing care to improve patient outcomes while ensuring a facility performs efficiently as a business. In doing so, they must also be sure that their policies adhere to the four principles of biomedical ethics. These were first outlined by Thomas Beauchamp and James Childress in 1979. They are respected for autonomy (acknowledging patients’ rights to make their own decisions), beneficence (intending to do good), nonmaleficence (doing no harm), and justice (providing equitable care).

For healthcare professionals in administrative roles, being aware of potential ethical dilemmas is a key part of what a health administrator does. They must incorporate ethics in healthcare into their facilities’ policies and procedures and mitigate the chances of ethical concerns negatively impacting patients.

Examples of Ethical Dilemmas in Healthcare

While the many ethical issues in healthcare involve patient care, factors outside the patient/provider dynamic can also be involved. Economic decisions, legal concerns, and the evolution of technology can place health professionals in ethical dilemmas.

1. Balancing Fiscal Responsibility and Ethics

Health administrators are responsible for making financial decisions that can impact their healthcare organizations and the quality of care delivered. It can be very challenging to balance competing demands, and it sometimes pits budget, quality, and ethics against each other. For example, administrators often must choose between hiring more staff to decrease nurse-to-patient ratios and buying or repairing equipment.

2. Mitigating Legal Risks Ethically

Malpractice and medical lawsuits can be devastating to any medical practice. Health administrators may be asked to work with staff to resolve complaints before these issues escalate to the point of legal action and to help ensure their organization’s providers are basing their decisions on patients’ needs over other factors. Appropriate actions may include disciplining or terminating a member of a healthcare team.

Fear of legal action may also cause providers to engage in “defensive medicine,” or practice strategies specifically designed to avoid potential malpractice suits. While this can conceivably prevent or minimize the potential for litigation, it can come at the expense of providing optimal care that can determine a patient’s short- and long-term health. Balancing these legal issues requires careful ethical analysis, a process that medical administrators can help guide.

3. Ethics of Privacy

An important ethical principle involves maintaining the right to privacy and autonomy. Healthcare organizations are increasingly reliant on technology, such as electronic health records (EHRs), for recording, storing, and transmitting sensitive health information. Administrators may play a role in ensuring these systems adhere to all relevant laws and regulations, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

On the other hand, health administrators must ensure staff members are aware of the circumstances under which confidentiality must be broken, such as to prevent patient self-harm or harm to others. A thorough understanding of these rules and the ability to analyze the ethical principles involved is important for professional leadership.

4. The Ethics of Managing Influential Relationships/h3>

Healthcare administrators may work to manage relationships with many stakeholders, including external vendors who provide products and services including brand-name medications, diagnostic equipment, and software solutions. This attention is necessary to ensure staff members are making decisions in patients’ best interests without outside influence. One example to avoid is an instance where a doctor or nurse may prescribe medication — even if it’s not medically necessary or there are better alternatives — to obtain a benefit promised from a pharmaceutical sales rep.

Health administrators are industry leaders with the education and authority to shape ethical policy in healthcare. By understanding and integrating principles of ethical leadership into your organization, you can help educate your colleagues and promote the highest quality of patient care.

Guide a More Ethically Sound Future

Health administration is about more than optimizing care delivery. It’s about doing so in a way that is mindful of the importance of ethics in healthcare. Ohio University’s online Master of Health Administration degree can help prepare you to lead healthcare facilities grounded in ethically sound principles. Our program is designed to provide you with the knowledge and skills to solve problems and implement innovations in an ethical manner.

Learn how Ohio University can help guide you to become a trusted leader in a vital field. 

Recommended Reading

How to Become a Health Care Administrator

Human Resource Management in Health Care

Types of Community Engagement Strategies for Health Care Organizations


American College of Healthcare Executives, Ethical Decision-Making for Healthcare Executives

Etactics, “10 Examples of Patient Confidentiality (Exceptions Included)”

HIPAA Journal, HIPAA Compliance and Medical Records

MedicineNet, “Medical Definition of Defensive Medicine”

National Conference of State Legislatures, Mental Health Professionals’ Duty to Warn

Oxford University Press, Principles of Biomedical Ethics