(soft) Medical Paternalism

Medical paternalism is commonly understood to indicate a physician’s telling patients what is good for them, without regard to the patient’s own needs and interests. In theory, the requirements of informed consent have obviated the concerns associated with such paternalism. However, to this day, compassionate caregivers often struggle to suppress their own judgements of what ‘is best’ for their patients and unfortunately in the complex world of modern medicine – many unintentionally ignore a patients rights along the way.

It is not that we should expect our physicians to not care about what is best – but rather that we should expect them to situate these concerns in the context of the patients own values. In 2003, economic and legal theorists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein coined a the term ‘soft paternalism’ to refer to policies that try to “influence choices in a way that will make choosers better off, as judged by themselves”. This is the compassionate viewpoint from which physicians ought to be engaging their patients.