Introduction – Medical Information Systems Ethics


The past several years have been a turbulent time for the French healthcare system. With an institutional environment in the midst of dramatic change, patient care is in a perpetual state of transformation under the effects of factors such as evolving healthcare needs and emergence of new technologies playing an increasingly large role in cost-saving policy.

Collectively, hospital establishments represent assets that are important as much for our healthcare system as for the social role they play. However, they are currently facing significant concerns such as demographic challenges; evolving management tasks, which notably include the hyper-specialization of certain techniques; changing financial regulations with the introduction of fee-for-service practices; quality of services and reception; continuity of the care process; human and organizational management; and obligation to inform, all against a background of budgetary restriction.

This period has been conducive to value conflicts, divergences of opinion and opposing points of view, and even clashes, notably mainly concerning the development of healthcare expenditure control policies, with care opposing cost, providers opposing economists or managers, and the right to individual healthcare opposing the obligation of solidarity and efficiency. In the resulting ethical debates, tensions have appeared between the morals of conviction and the morals of individual and collective responsibility, and between clinical medicine and public healthcare, contributing to strategic and organizational dysfunction in the healthcare sector.

To all this, we can add revolutionary developments in information technology, with new communication devices such as the Internet, e-health, m-health, medical big data, and the complexity of internal and external transmission, notably in hospitals, due to the existence of medical information carrier systems (hospital information system (HIS), radiology information system, personal medical file (PMF), confidential physician cancer reporting, telemedicine, intranet networks, etc.). Currently, “data intelligence” appears to be the strategic response for the management of the use and deviance of the latter. Consequently, exploitation of big data is a sensitive subject, as it directly touches the private life of everyone. The number of situations in which difficult problems of strategic choice are faced in matters of personal data management grows larger every day. The increasing digitalization of digital data, the ever-growing capacity to store digital data and the resulting accumulation of information of every type have given rise to certain fears and uncertainties due to their multiple (and complex) usages, their impacts on highly diverse populations, which are difficult to measure, and the fact that information is sometimes impossible to control.

In this context, ethics cannot constitute an absolute response; it is not an exact science that, using theorems and axioms, leads to a universal truth; it can only hope to tend towards that direction. Its aim is to contribute orientations that do not seek a consensus but which reveal existing antagonisms. Thus, divergences of opinion effectively illustrate the difficulties to be faced by healthcare professionals with regard to medical information in disciplines, such as cancer treatment, in which sensitivity due to the idea of sickness and death in the near future is very high.

I.1. Questions on which our study is based

In the face of these accelerating changes and expanding ruptures, a feeling of chaos has arisen where there was previously a semblance of order, values, principles and well-established rules. The manipulation and use of medical information are perpetually seeking a balance between medical confidentiality (a fundamental principle of classical medicine) and transparency (a fundamental principle of the modern public sphere).

Our healthcare system, and our society more generally, has now entered an era of perpetual questioning where no certainty can ever be definitively reached. Has the evolution of technology and of mentalities abandoned certain human values, rules and principles in the face of increasing consequences of medical information? Are the rights to access and truthfulness of this information being called into question? Generally speaking, has the concept of medical confidentiality retained its validity and meaning in this modern techno-democracy? Can procedures to control and manage the diffusion of information formulated on an ethical basis contribute to bringing risks of misuse under control to a certain extent?

In short, are the computerization and digitalization of medical data endangering certain fundamental social and moral principles of classic Hippocratic medicine, such as the confidentiality and security of medical information?

So many questions indicative of a certain degree of anxiety and a loss of trust in healthcare actors and even in the very values of our healthcare system have given rise to a sense of profound destabilization in global terms. This feeling of chaos naturally makes it a complex matter to project possible developments to come, and thus to plan anticipatory responses. Can ethical reflection on the subject make it possible in the medium term to preserve a predominant place for confidentiality in the eyes of healthcare professionals?

We may note that the development of ethics-centered reflection in the field of healthcare is not limited solely to considerations pertaining to bioethics, clinical or biomedical research, or therapeutic innovation. For several years now, ethics has also focused on the emergence of new technologies, particularly those to be used for medical information and communication within healthcare structures.

More generally speaking, it results from multitudes of decision-making situations involving values. These new technologies pose the problem of knowing how to inform and who to inform. Is inequality of access to medical information morally and socially acceptable? How do these technologies contribute to relational, behavioral and organizational changes between healthcare professionals and their patients? Have technological advances banalized the “sacralization” of medical information by making it more and more accessible to all? In a more serious scenario, is it possible that this modernization of information and communication tools, illustrated notably by telemedicine, poses the risk of relegating the clinical and therapeutic practice of medicine to second place?

This leads us to question ourselves regarding the societal values and ethical principles involved in the design and use of healthcare information systems (IS) for the exchange and sharing of medical information with healthcare actors, as well as better access to medical data for users of our healthcare system.

One of the major questions posed by this book is how the technological modernization of the use of digitized medical information and medical big data can work hand in hand with increased ethical sensitivity to create an IS with a human face. What are the repercussions of an IS on the mentalities and social values of healthcare actors from a structural, technological, strategic, methodological, organizational, relational or cultural perspective?

We can therefore contextualize this ethical reflection within the perspective of the evolution of IS, in a time of both recent technological developments and new medical communication tools, as well as of new healthcare structures that are in the process of being introduced.

It is on the following questions that our book will rely in order to develop an intellectual approach to questioning focused on IS ethics. The objective of these reflections is not only to contribute to the appearance of facts but also to go deeper and perceive their real meaning.

In the case with which we are concerned, this is indeed an ethical reflection on which we must ground ourselves to know how society as a whole1 must address and treat the questioning of existing IS. Ethics hark back to a corpus of human values and principles that goes beyond the principles of medical ethics alone. This in a nutshell is the entire concern of our book: which ethical principles and essential social values must guide the design and implementation of healthcare IS? This ethical questioning around IS represents a significant part of what can be called the symbolic accompaniment of New Information Communication Technologies (NICTs). It attests to a “growing awareness of the challenges of operative transcendence at odds with symbolic transcendence handed down by tradition” [HOT 04]. This awareness is what justifies the presence of philosophers within these conceptual debates.

I.2. Objectives and contributions of this book

Most of the problems and even legal disputes that develop between healthcare professionals and patients stem from a lack of communication due to insufficient awareness of the importance of the patient’s information, lack of time and almost non-existent training of the healthcare professionals in communication. In these conditions, communication becomes a veritable tool that should be used to reorient the doctor–patient relationship [MAN 06], wherein information represents both the product of this communication and the bond of the relationship.

Of course, we do not claim to analyze all the mechanisms of the development and use of an IS for the whole patient care process in depth, but only the phases during which medical information takes on its full importance. Thus, we will focus on addressing, from an ethical point of view, sharing, transmission, and storage of medical information for the management of care and diagnosis, leaving aside the resulting therapeutic and clinical part. One of the major challenges of our research is to establish a context of analysis based on a universal, abstract and rational ethical requirement2 culminating in a practical and concrete set of ethics based on daily work in the field.

Our objective is not to publish directives for the creation and use of medical information via NICTs but to highlight issues and make some recommendations related to ethical principles. This emphasizing of the ethical dimension of an IS makes it necessary for us to work from two perspectives simultaneously – that of the individual and that of the system as such – with the goal of ensuring the required minimum of consistency. For this reason, transforming an IS into an ethical system will depend on the nature of the ethical standards surrounding the aforementioned system [JOH 07, WRE 07, ZHE 07, COE 10]. This ethical framework will help us to avoid positioning dictated by short-sighted pragmatism, the desire for power, economic interest, and so on.

The goal is to know whether the objectives and the means used fulfill the same ethical requirements on the subject. Which circuits for the diffusion of medical information are given priority? Is it necessary for the regulation of medical data to be subjected to ethical concerns?

The development of recommendations for the creation, use, methodology and means to be implemented in order to ensure the efficient operation of an IS, as well as the intellectual projection of a theoretical “ideal” computer tool, may, in the near future, be of use to the computer publishers, healthcare establishments or care institutions as an “ethical charter” for the design and implementation of IS whose end goal is care support.

In summary, there are multiple expectations with regard to this book:

  • – shedding precise illumination on the various IS and circuits used by healthcare actors and structures;
  • – understanding ethical and technical expectations of IS managers in the healthcare industry, as well as those of users (healthcare professionals and patients/users of the healthcare system) and industrialists;
  • – achieving better readability of the various uses and implementation of an IS within the different structures of care support;
  • – creating a model and ethical analytical evaluation of IS to set up a scoring system for expectations, achievements and means implemented;
  • – developing an “ethical charter” involving recommendations, actions and developments to be carried out in the creation, implementation and use of an IS;
  • – creating a tool for the setting up and ongoing improvement of the ethical performance of hospital IS.

Our ultimate goal, thus, is simply to help readers to have a clearer understanding of the ethical issues provoked by a subject such as this. This, in our opinion, is the primary condition necessary in order to have a social dialogue going beyond the current financial and material considerations. By bringing to light a framework based on new ethical–technological reflection, we hope that this book will supply the first elements of a development plan that will contribute to noticeable changes in mentalities and ways of working, as well as a strategic and organizational transformation with a “human face” for an IS and its use in doctor–patient communication. The objective here is to establish a certain consistency and meaning in this landscape of perpetually evolving technology in order to provide the best care possible for the patient.

With this in mind, we will introduce the basic ethical principles surrounding the use of medical information in the field of healthcare. This will give us the opportunity to approach subjects addressing the emergence of this information in the face of human ethical concerns in society, and its importance in the field of cancer treatment. To do this, we will rely on bibliographic research on literature, conferences and books on the subject. Next, we will describe the various systems and circuits of information acquisition, transmission and storage used by different actors and structures in the sector, and will present the field studies on which our research is based.

We will identify and understand the purposes and emerging reflections around the ethics of IS design on the one hand, and its production, characteristics and methods used on the other hand, based on the description of the computer-based process via the intermediary of semi-directive interviews conducted with actors who are particularly deeply concerned with this subject, as well as via the development of a field study in the form of a questionnaire. These analyses will be made possible due to the development of an ethical model that will supply quantitative weighting of all these results.

In section 3.3. of Chapter 3, we will enter into a personal reflection on the recommendations, actions and perspectives to be imagined from a behavioral, strategic and structural point of view, leading to production and effective use of IS. All this will help us to make an analysis of the construction of an “ideal” computerized tool that best fulfills the ethical expectations of the cancer treatment sector. This will be combined with an ethical charter for IS intended for patient care, as well as a tool for the introduction and ongoing improvement of hospital ethical performance in the IS. Note that this ethical charter will be the subject of an opinion survey among healthcare professions and users 3 on these recommendations of actions to take, as well as on the perspectives contributed by our theory, with the goal of ensuring that these conclusions will be in sync with the expectations and concerns of actors on this subject.

I.3. Toward medical ethics

This section will involve the construction and detailed examination of the conceptual and theoretical framework in which our reflections have been formulated. A context like this must necessarily include descriptions of the various ethical concepts and principles involved in the production and use of an IS in cancer treatment. This will also contribute to the establishment of a definition of our research subject within a field itself, which must be defined in both theoretical and practical terms. For this reason, we will measure the challenges of an IS and attempt to surmount both the various ethical questions it raises and the inevitable methodological obstacles and concerns inherent in the conducting of any field study. To do this, we will rely on bibliographical, documentary and literary research as well as semi-directive interviews with researchers, institutional bodies and companies with expert knowledge of the subject.

By definition, information is organized and constitutes a globally cohesive whole designated as an immaterial system. The issues and questions surrounding medical information are legitimate, and raising them already represents the first step and a certain increase in awareness of the value of the IS. This whole, then, brings together a quantity of ethical principles that help to give it meaning, coherence and humanity. For this, we do not need to invent new ethical principles or codes to frame an IS, as noted by Dominique Wolton [WOL 02]4, director of the Institute of Communication Sciences at the CNRS (Centre national de la recherche scientifique, or National Center for Scientific Research). According to him, “technology does not invalidate earlier principles; it is sufficient to apply existing ones to new technologies. We are not required to adapt our principles to new technologies; rather, these new technologies must be compatible with our principles”.

Like all new technologies, Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) constitute both a promise and a risk; as such, they can provoke both interest and anxiety. However, they can also lead us to formulate some ethical questions in a new manner, considering the specific characteristics of their provisions and usages. This reinforces the need for social and psychological involvement in order to orient and guide the concrete details according to which an IS can be organized and structured. For this reason, healthcare norms and principles are actualized in good practice recommendations and are closely associated with values.

An IS generates information and norms that become part of a strategy, which is then made available to the healthcare professional. Indeed, all practical and political decisions that determine actions of human beings are themselves determined from a normative point of view and exert a normative effect in their turn. Thus, whatever is the strategy adapted by the healthcare professional during the use of medical information about his or her patient, it is used as part of an institution that requires him or her to link his or her medical decision to an established rule or norm. In every case, he or she is constrained by the texts established for the well-being of healthcare users. Activities that take inspiration from values in fact seek to follow certain rules and norms to approach the value deliberately pursued, and it is easy to note that any research intending to survey the world of humankind and its activities is obligated to take values, rules and norms into consideration. Desiring to put these aside would mean treating the world of humankind like a world of pure Nature.

This is why the major challenge is to bring out possibilities of producing agreements founded on reason, based on values or principles recognized or recognizable by the largest number of people, and thus remain committed to universality [COR 09].

I.3.1. Sources that feed our ethical reflections

Our schema of reflectance draws part of its source and inspiration from the classical ethical theories we are used to consider, specifically, the Greek model of virtue5, in which ethics concern first the individual (agent) who executes an action, and the so-called relational theories such as utilitarianism6, contractualism7 and deontologism8, whose major concern is the moral nature and value of the actions executed by the agent. Our reasoning is based more broadly on a set of ethics oriented toward those who create or receive action involving an IS and are then subjected to its effects: patients, healthcare professionals and IS designers. This necessarily includes the application of universal principles that are both consensual and regulatory and tend toward social cohesion. A relational and communicational ethical code built on the basis of the diffusion of words thus makes it possible to bring meaning to therapeutic acts with the patient. It orients practices toward the relational dimension and creates continuity in space and time. In these conditions, we develop the idea of an ethical code used in a dialogue. What results is a deliberative approach in which the most appropriate ethical vision stems from a discussion between all the actors involved in the design, setup and usage of an IS intended for care support. Our ethical code drives a vision of medical decision-making that is both standardized and algorithmic, and is dissociated from a personalized and synthetic approach developed around patient needs.

In correlation, because in this society in which information is predominant and entities are made up of information, our ethical code is also oriented toward the telematic school of ethical thought introduced by Luciano Floridi, professor at Oxford University, on what ethics will be in an information society, and the characteristics of which are compatible with our subject of analysis [FLO 98]. Unlike classical models, which are intrinsically anthropocentric, individualist and social in nature, telematic ethics concern above all the environment in which information is generated and propagated (also called the “infosphere”), as well as the protagonists involved in the IS (which can be designated as being the “principal”). This infosphere represents a digital space composed of a lasting and volatile heritage present in an often undefined geographical space. It is an inherently intangible and immaterial environment, which makes it no less real or essential. This digital territory (intellectual, industrial, personal, cultural, etc.) belongs to an individual or a corporation, or falls under the responsibility of a person or an organization. All the software and other technological tools managed by this responsible entity are connected to this infosphere [CAR 00], as are all their legitimate users. This infosphere is composed of a set of subjects and objects that gravitate around computer devices. It also includes all the data belonging to an individual (or a corporation) and all the data concerning him or her, but which are outside his or her center of gravity (security, policy, etc.). In summary, the infosphere of a healthcare establishment brings together all the communicating objects of the structure, data and connections associated with the IS.

This approach is therefore considered to be allocentric, meaning that it tends to make other people the center of the universe, its concerns, its interests, and so on, and to center its own activities on what others do. For this reason, Luciano Floridi (the Italian philosopher) bases his ideas on the theory of information, and more particularly on the concept of entropy of information introduced by Shannon9 in the mid-20th Century. For the author, entropy of information measures, in a way analogous to thermodynamic entropy, the degree of disorder of a system, or more exactly the knowledge that we have of it. If we understand something perfectly, we know how to locate all its details and can enumerate the series of them in order; thus the thing seems ordered. This means that there is a direct relationship between the organization of a system and the knowledge we have of it. Likewise, the weaker the entropy (i.e., the more ordered a system is), the more it is understood, and vice versa.

On the basis of this theory, Floridi developed his reflectance around the ethics of information using global entropy of information as a criterion applied to his concept of the infosphere, the environment in which information develops. According to him, “ethical behavior will diminish entropy because it renders information more meaningful, while an increase in entropy would be harmful to everyone”. Thus, an action considered “just” or considered as ethical will lead to a reduction in overall entropy, and to an increase in the understanding we have of it.

Conversely, incorrect information or already understood data will increase entropy by disorganizing the infosphere. In this context, the ethical issues10 raised by this digital universe are better grasped and understood if we associate them with events or concrete facts in the real environment [FLO 02]. For example, the concept of confidentiality can be connected to the presence or lack of parameters in an IS, enabling the blocking of the identification of the patient to whom the medical information is linked. Accessibility to medical information can be associated with the existence of a so-called sharing platform within the IS in which the patient can have access to his or her own medical information.

In complement to this, according to Fessler and Grémy [FES 01], the concept and the term “info-ethics” can be examined on two levels:

  • – the human relationships existing in all IS of a structure as soon as individuals are connected to one another via the tools of the IS;
  • – healthcare structures have an additional dimension vis-à-vis humankind; they concern changes in human beings.

As we have just seen, information becomes the principal subject of moral action. The principal objective of telematic ethics is to determine what is good for an item of information, and more generally for its near environment: the infosphere. It distinguishes right from wrong, what must be done and the duties of the moral agent, based on four fundamental laws: entropy must not be caused in the infosphere; production of entropy must be prevented in the infosphere; entropy must be excluded from the infosphere; and good condition of information must be favored by the expansion of information (quantity), its perfection (quality) and its diversification (variety) in the infosphere [FLO 98].

Finally, our framework of reflection belongs most naturally to the concepts of medical ethics, bioethics and environmentalist ethics, which have a more patient-oriented approach and thus reposition the receiver of action at the heart of the ethical discussion and move the emitter toward its periphery. According to Floridi [FLO 98]:

Good and bad no longer describe actions in themselves, but relate to what is good or bad for the infosphere. […] Telematic ethics elevates information to the position of a life form. It elevates information to the position of universal receiver of any action. Now there is something more elementary and fundamental than life and suffering: being, understood as information, and entropy.

I.3.2. The Hippocratic Oath at the root of medical ethics

The word “ethics” suggests both antiquity and modernity, harking back to both distant origins of moral discourse and extreme topicality. To speak of medical ethics is to evoke the genealogy of thought, to go back toward a forgotten dimension and almost “to lay bare the structures of the West” originating from ancient Greece with the Hippocratic Oath, as stated by the jurist and psychoanalyst Pierre Legendre [LEG 85].

It is indisputable that philosophy has fed on centuries of reflection on medical ethics ever since the Hippocratic Oath, and on critical study of medical knowledge and its modes of acquisition. These classical medical ethics texts have ensured the continuity of ethics from Hippocrates until today. But the term “ethics” also means something that has become omnipresent and almost triumphant. Badiou notes that “this word ‘ethics’, which smacks so strongly of Greek or philosophy class, which evokes the famous bestseller Nicomachean Ethics, is in the limelight” and that ethics, come straight from Antiquity, has been “belatedly” voted in. What establishes the roots of medical ethical authority is the fact that ethics springs from philosophy and that Greek medicine is itself a philosophical activity. In late Antiquity, the famous Galenian phrase “the best physician is also a philosopher” meant nothing else.

A reading of the various writings in the Hippocratic corpus shows that Greek medicine did indeed include a great deal of practical wisdom, with the capacity for ethical deliberation on one hand and moral respect applicable to every patient and every citizen on the other, implying even greater importance for the person responsible for the health and lives of other human beings.

It is in these observations, which appeared for the first time in a classical text, that we find the premises of four future major principles of modern bioethics:

  • – Principle of non-malfeasance11: Primum non nocere: “First do no harm;” that is, act only within the realm of one’s knowledge and abilities, otherwise a physician must delegate the power of action to his or her colleagues. This maxim means that risk, inconvenience and burden to the patient are acceptable only proportionally to the good they yield for him or her. It, therefore, implies a duty of diligence and caution, which must not however slide into therapeutic nihilism.
  • – Principle of autonomy12: secrecy has a sacred status: “I will keep secrets and regard them as inviolable”.
  • – Principle of beneficence13: “In every house I enter, it will be for the relief of the ill:” do everything possible to be useful to the patient, and above all do nothing that may harm him or her. The good of the patient has always been the guiding principle of medical action and of the doctor–patient relationship; the doctor is, in a sense, “there for that”. This principle thus represents the driving force, the moral energy that underlies every care action.
  • – Principle of justice14: “In every house I enter, it will be for the relief of the ill, keeping myself pure of any deliberate injustice, abstaining from every sort of immorality”.

To these four principles is added the idea that the doctors must be exemplary, keeping themselves apart from any corruption or abuse of power that their position may confer on them, with the concept of unconditional respect for life as a constant backdrop.

Thus, the principles stated in the Hippocratic Oath guide the conduct not just of physicians but also of all professionals whose actions are dictated by the medical field. These principles are designed to be universal and were the subject of consensus in the International Code of Medical Ethics during the General Assembly of the World Medical Association in October 1983. In Europe, in January 1987, the European Council of Medical Orders formulated the most important principles intended to guide the professional conduct of physicians, irrespective of their mode of practice, in their relationships with patients, the medical community and one another.

I.3.3. Ethical reflection centered on principles and adjusted by rules

The objective of this chapter is to propose an alliance between ethics and anthropology by applying an analytical model of the principles and ethical rules underlying the development and setup of an IS in the healthcare sector.

The roots of the word “ethics” lie in the Greek term ethos, meaning “mores” (Cicero), or “habits” (Plato and Aristotle). Ethics involves the “habitat” and “character of a person”. Thus, the way in which we inhabit the world represents the way in which we are someone. According to the philosopher Jean-François Mattei, the expression “to be inhabited” takes on its whole meaning and symbolic value here. Seen from this perspective, ethics is a reflection on the habits that must be formed to render a space habitable. Thus, ethics questions the values that underlie action, which can result in a conflict of values in a world of ideas. It “naturally finds its source of reflection in action” [HER 97]. Ethics is an individual tendency to act according to virtues in a given situation to seek out the right decision. It has meaning only in a proper situation in which it admits argumentation, discussion and paradoxes.

In the context of technology, ethics deals with acts and actions that have an incomparable causal reach toward the future and are accompanied by provisional knowledge that, despite its incomplete nature, also spills over into everything that has been previously known. To this we must add the value of actions in the long term, and very often their irreversibility as well. All of this places responsibility at the center of ethics, including the horizons of space and time, which correspond to those of ethical principles.

Ethics is situated upstream of deontology and the law, certain fundamental principles of which it has given rise to. From ethics to law and from law to ethics, there is a permanent dialectic movement that, it may be imagined, is causing society to progress toward a greater humanity.

Consequently, we can establish the following phrases:

  • Morals15 produce individual awareness of good and evil and the extension of this awareness to relationships with other people.
  • Ethics regulates and adjusts morals by inserting them into common principles, taking context into account.
  • Deontology16 codifies ethical principles by constituting general rules applicable to a specific sector of human activity.
  • Law generates concretized and binding rules for the population of a given group.

In ethics, the principle constitutes the base, represented “in the form of a commandment” [LEC 07]. It is immutable, universal and intangible, and its value is not influenced by the course of history. For this reason, all societies tend toward this universality, illustrating the unicity that surrounds us. The universal is present in the multiplicity of things, and thus of human beings.

All theoretical discourse is rational discourse applied to the universal. By its very essence, the Italian term Uomo Universale designates the theoretical and abstract man of Leonardo da Vinci. This conquest of the universal necessarily includes a refusal of immediate particularity. The universal thus yields an ordered whole according to unitary laws illustrated by rules.

The purpose of ethical rules is to bring order to a social group by giving orders to citizens, thus preventing “anarchy”17. The rules can be revised and modified according to context, environment, space and time; thus, they are specific to each country and culture [LEC 07]. Because of its status as a means, the rule has less an ethical meaning than a pragmatic and utilitarian value. It has a strong instrumental connotation, providing ethical principles with a concrete expression that causes them to exist. According to the Dictionary of ethics and moral philosophy, these rules “tend more to impose a response in problematic situations that may be encountered by the professional in the exercise of his profession than to expose and arbitrate the moral dilemmas that these situations may cause”. Thus, ethics rise up in the cracks of the deontological code to confront moral dilemmas by questioning. There are only rules for a given situation; they cannot be applied to every situation, and their use concretizes the rightness of an approach and a course of action to be taken in a defined context.

Against a background of disorientation of spirits and anxiety concerning the future of our healthcare system, we believe it is indispensable to go back to the fundamental tenets of medical ethics. What are our human values? How can we include and apply them in reality? In expressing our values, we discover that they are shared by others.

Modern research in healthcare ethics focuses on its importance for the personal values of individuals in order to understand the behaviors and relationships existing in the human–machine interface. The clarification of personal, professional and institutional values constitutes a precondition for any reflexive approach to healthcare ethics. Thus, it examines the consistency and compatibility between the different value systems involved in the medical information environment, that is, the infosphere.

In the context of our theoretical analysis of ethics, we have drawn heavily on the book by Beauchamp and Childress [BEA 01], which proposes the application of principlism, “a principlism that is non-dogmatic and normative but not imperative”. Their model is similar to the flexible version of principlism specifically applied to public healthcare and proposed by Massé [MAS 03], on which it draws heavily. For the authors, the model based on principles and values is composed of an analytical chart used to identify and consider moral problems; however, this model is relatively generalized and does not bring to light all the nuances of the various moral challenges of a specific issue. Thus, their model must be adapted for the principles to be concordant with the context and environment being studied. The authors speak of the concept of specifications, introducing the idea of balancing, which refers to a judgment and a deliberation imposed by the individuals on themselves in their analysis of the relative importance of each of the values or norms included in ethical reflectance.

According to Massé [MAS 03], ethics also refers to a set of so-called social values that are qualified as “personal, collective, or organizational, rather than absolute, as in the definition of morals”. Ethical reflectance thus constitutes a place for debate and discussion of the values to be prioritized in the production and setup of a healthcare IS, with the objective being to reach a consensus in the analysis of our subject of study.

The Massé model proposes a framework to analyze the ethical challenges of public healthcare actions in order to adjust general and abstract principles to the realities and specific characteristics of the sector being studied. The norms proposed here greatly exceed the four principles usually discussed in bioethics, and the analysis chart includes ten values and two principles qualified as epistemological and political. The author states that the proposed model does not lay claim to exhaustivity, and that the key values that compose it do not tend toward universality, which can be dependent on the culture, beliefs and philosophy of a society.

The author maintains that the principles or values chosen have only a relative weight and should be considered as justifications, that is, as nonabsolute norms that are never determinative in the final judgment. These values can therefore be of varying importance according to context, and each of them may be subject to open moral reasoning.

Table I.1 [MAS 03] indicates that each value falls within moral traditions and is based on ethical theories. These values, thus, can be used as a theoretical common thread at the time of judgment and analysis. They represent points of reference framing reflections on the action to be put in place.

Table I.1. Anchoring of key values in ethical theories

TheoriesPrinciplesKey values
RightsAutonomySelf-determination, private life, confidentiality
DeontologyBeneficence, non-malfeasanceRespect for healthy life, doing good, non-malfeasance
JusticeJusticeJustice, responsibility
UtilitarianismUsefulnessUsefulness, common good
VirtueResponsibilityCommon good, solidarity, paternalistic responsibility, prudence

Finally, in his study entitled Ethical challenges in the Quebecois breast cancer treatment program, Samuel Vézina [VÉZ 06] drew heavily on the Massé model in his analysis of the ethical framework of the breast cancer treatment program in Quebec. In it, he carried out an exercise of “particularization” of the values brought forth in the reflections made for the occasion.

On the basis of these various observations, we have constructed a system of ethical analysis based on four universal ethical principles, to which six ethical rules are associated.

I.3.3.1. Four universal ethical principles

In the face of this issue surrounding the management and use of medical information by an IS, the quality and harmony of the latter are dependent on the hierarchization of end purposes. For this reason, we must confront certain dilemmas, such as bringing a sense of meaning and purpose to the accessibility of medical data while guaranteeing the protection of personal data. An IS cannot define itself as a source of ethics because this is beyond its remit. However, it can tend toward it and recognize unethical actions. This questioning goes back to the most fundamental tenets of ethics. Are there universal values that are necessary for everyone? Can the uniqueness of individual consciousness be transposed to a transversal instrument with a collective and multidisciplinary purpose such as an IS? Our reflectance will be based on the questions that follow in order to develop an intellectual questioning approach oriented toward an ethics of ends and means, and the moral foundations of IS.

When we consult articles and books on ethics, we are quickly staggered by the abundance of references and underlying social values used by the authors: “well-being”, “quality of life”, “pleasure”, “happiness”, “concern for others”, “compassion”, “empathy”, “solicitude”, “altruism”, “responsibility toward others”, “communal solidarity”, “sharing”, “reciprocity”, “interdisciplinarity”, “prudence”, “respect for others”, and so on. This multiplicity of social values of every type has the unpleasant ability to create spiritual confusion. How can we sort through all these social values to find the principles that bring them together and can be used to achieve a clear discussion and analysis of the subject? What are the guiding principles and rules, the adjustment variables needed for ethical values to be accepted by the whole community? Finally, “how can a medical imaging company contribute added value and effectiveness to patient care?” [BON 07].

If we consult the international bioethics literature, we can see that four constants emerge again and again, depending on the country. References to the principles of “Autonomy”, “Beneficence”, “Non-malfeasance”, and “Justice” appear unremittingly in every book, irrespective of its place of origin, culture, beliefs, philosophy or religion (see Table I.2).

Table I.2. Vocation of the four ethical principles

Autonomy: This designates the fact that a person gives himself rules for his or her own conduct; the Greek terms autos and nomos mean “oneself” and “law/rule”, respectively. The aim of this principle is to motivate the patient to participate in the decision-making process.
Beneficence: This contributes to the well-being of others. It must adhere to two very specific rules: the action undertaken must be beneficial and useful, that is, it must have a positive cost–benefit ratio.
Non-malfeasance: The purpose of this principle is to prevent harm being done to the person for whom one is responsible (the patient) and to spare him or her injuries or suffering that would be without meaning for him or her. Its end purpose thus implies doing good and abstaining from doing harm. This principle appears in the Hippocratic maxim primum non nocere18, the motto of which is to do good for patients and to keep them away from harm and injustice.
Justice: The vocation of this principle is the sharing of available resources among all patients19. It is closely linked to the concepts of equality and equity, which are directly involved in the process of a court ruling. Ideally, every action should tend toward perfect equality, but depending on the circumstances and nature of the individuals, equity often imposes itself in order to establish priorities and a certain hierarchy in the acts to be performed. This principle reinforces a scope that can be designated as “macro-ethical” concerning all patients, while the three previous principles have a much more individual and relational scope and are considered as “micro-ethical”.

In the field of healthcare, a medical decision must be rational and constructed methodically using some simple, consistent, clear and previously defined ethical principles. The humanistic concept of support, which is a social dimension of care, enables the patient to reclaim part of his or her autonomy by taking him or her out of his or her state of passivity and mobilizing his or her resources. This puts us in a relationship in which the individual is at the center, in a position of respect for the person, and in which socio-educative or socio-curative approaches must be developed in the same way as socio-therapeutic action. It is in this sense that the social environment will recover its hospitalizable value.

As we saw in section I.3.3.1, the term “principle” is intended to give broad directions to action and to fix behaviors. It designates a fundamental orientation that inspires action. For many years, philosophers worked to “reduce all moral requirements to a single principle” [OGI 07], drawing inspiration from their glorious predecessors Aristotle20, Kant21, Bentham 22 and Mill 23. Now, our modern society has the benefit of several major principles that are both stable and limited in number. Two books provide references on the subject of ethical principles in the healthcare field; these are Public Health Communication Interventions [GUT 96] and Principles of Biomedical Ethics [BEA 01]. Moreover, the latter was the first to establish and identify these four main ethical principles. According to Beauchamp and Childress, the place of ethics is that of conscience, questioning and dissidence, which must be framed by these four universal fundamental principles. This universality seeks to reveal itself to us through our concrete and practical achievements.

It was on the occasion of the drafting of the Belmont Report that these four major principles of biomedical ethics (respect for individual autonomy, beneficence, non-malfeasance and justice) were formalized in North America for the first time. Yet for all that, since their formalization and even before defining them, the authors of this report have emphasized that these principles represent a framework of reflection whose application is not self-evident: “These principles cannot always be applied incontestably to resolve specific ethical problems. Their objective is to supply an analytical structure intended to guide the resolution of ethical problems resulting from research enlisting the participation of human subjects” 24 [AMA 07].

For Lazare Benoroyo, “these ethical principles of bioethics – drawing their sources partly from outside the field of Hippocratic ethics – have tended to weaken the bonds uniting ethics and medicine and to call into question the legitimacy of the cardinal ethical aim that traditionally guided the production of care” [MON 11]. According to Beauchamp and Childress [BEA 01], consideration of a specific case makes it possible to confer a precise meaning on the principle, without which it is difficult to apply this principle correctly. According to the authors, “particularization (by case) is a way of reducing the overly general character of a norm and give it a greater capacity to guide action, while keeping it compatible with the moral meaning of the original principle”.

Thus, whether we place ourselves in the recent history of North American medical ethics or in the older history of ethical philosophy, articulation of case and principle has always been thought necessary and productive for reflections of an ethical nature. These principles thus impose a moral obligation, but they leave room for the creativity of actors in the search for and development of solutions without imposing a canonical scale of values. Because they are not theoretically placed in a hierarchy, it is the responsibility of healthcare professionals to hierarchize them when seeking solutions in contentious situations. In this sense, this approach leaves room for freedom and for the creativity of those involved.

Moreover, according to Pierre Le Coz [LEC 09a], these four cardinal principles act simply as guides, helping to keep discussions from going offtrack. In no case are they intended to resolve all ethical problems. A principle formalizes a value that is “intuitive, subjective and imprecise” in nature by giving it a verbal outline. The principle makes it possible for the value to impart a readable, easily shared meaning to a discussion or analysis. Ethics is not imperialist, rather it is a means of answering the question “how do we live together?” Establishing principles helps in bringing order and coherence to social values.

However, it is important to add nuance to the universal aspect of these four ethical principles in terms of applicability. As specified by Le Coz [LEC 09b]:

Each State is drawn back to its history, culture, and mores, and it would be wholly unrealistic to desire to wrench it away from this in the name of an abstract universal. This is why it does not seem possible to impose universal norms by requiring this or that State to comply with all requests. […] States cannot be obligated to act as models for one another; they are always sent back to the solitude of their choice, forced to make decisions of which none can satisfy us fully and definitively, because there is always a value that is subordinated, if not sacrificed for another, as can be seen with the issue of donating eggs. Each State must make its own decision according to the values to which it is the most attached.

I.3.3.2. Six ethical rules

Ethical rules are intended to hone the framework of our ethical reflection on the subject. They are the adjustment variables used to respond as completely as possible to the issues that arise in the production and setup of an IS in the healthcare field.

Owing to its nature and impact on its environment, the IS will produce multiple repercussions affecting multiple sectors and actors. The consequences of a tool like this are multidisciplinary, and therefore cause numerous incidences of questioning the mentalities and social values of various fields from a structural, technological, strategic, methodological, organizational, relational and cultural point of view.

For this reason, we have used a large number of these ethical rules according to the sectors encountered during our analysis, for a total of six specific rules for the healthcare domain in France. These rules are associated with the fundamental ethical principles discussed earlier, as shown in Table I.3.

Table I.3. Rules deriving from fundamental ethical principles

Fundamental ethical principlesEthical rules
AutonomyRespect for life

Ultimately, an ethical deliberation tool based on four principles combined with six ethical rules is intended to contribute to the study of the end purposes of an action. This deliberative device has an evaluative and shifting reach.

This approach to ethical deliberation does not claim to resolve all the ethical issues created by the complexity of the problems surrounding NICTs in the field of healthcare. However, we believe that it constitutes a highly relevant model to guide reflections in medicine in an interdisciplinary context. This modeling is aimed at developing a meticulous reflexivity and an understanding of the decision-making impasses and challenges that takes into account the extremely complex character of human reality in medicine.