First, We Do Harm: Obtaining Informed Consent for Surgical Procedures
Although many believe that the phrase “First, do no harm” was part of the Hippocratic Oath, in fact it was not. This phrase, often written in Latin (“Primum non Nocere”), seems to have first appeared in medical writing in the 17th century. However, it is obvious that many therapeutic interventions do cause at least some harm with hopes of benefitting patients in the long run. This balancing of initial harm in hope of eventual benefit is never more apparent than in the case of invasive procedures, though other examples abound, such as the administration of chemotherapy. The ethical concept of nonmaleficence, which traces its origins to the concept of primum non nocere, accurately acknowledges the concept of the need to strive to do more good than harm. Thus, it is apparent that, in a surgical operation, the surgeon is proposing to cause harm, initially, to the patient in hopes of creating an outcome that results in more good than harm. Therefore, the process of obtaining consent from the patient for a surgical operation acknowledges the fact that harm will, in fact, be inflicted on that patient, with the hope that, on balance, this harm will result in a greater overall good for the patient. It is for this reason that the modern concepts of informed consent have developed.
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