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Ethical Issues in Physical Therapy Practice: A

Survey of Physical Therapists in New England


Andrew A Guccione
PHYS THER. 1980; 60:1264-1272.

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Ethical Issues in Physical Therapy Practice


A Survey of Physical Therapists in New England
ANDREW A. GUCCIONE, MS

This survey was an attempt to identify which ethical decisions are most frequently encountered and are most difficult to make for practicing physical
therapists. A questionnaire that described 3 0 situations with an ethical dimension was sent to 4 5 0 American Physical Therapy Association members practicing
in New England. A total of 187 (41.5%) usable questionnaires was returned.
Issues raised by items were designated a s primary, secondary, or nonpriority.
Seven primary and 11 secondary ethical issues were identified. In brief, these
issues involve the decision about which patients should be treated, what obligations are entailed by that decision, who should pay for treatment, and what
duties derive from the physical therapist's relationship with other health professionals, including physicians. Some of these decisions are more frequent in
certain types of employment facilities than in others. Sources of ethical conflict
and the role of the professional organization in defining moral values for the
profession are discussed in this paper, and implications for education are
presented.
Key Words: Ethics, medical; Ethics, professional; Physical

The need to identify and clarify ethical issues


within a health profession increases as the profession
assumes responsibility for those areas of direct patient
care in its domain. A brief comparison of the 1935
American Physiotherapy Association C O D E OF E T H -

ICS with its 1977 American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) counterpart reflects the development
of physical therapy as a profession in its own right.1
The physical therapist today, in defining the limits of
his legal and professional autonomy, must examine
the practice of his profession from an ethical point of
view. By doing so, he carefully guards the rights of
patients, maintains his integrity as a professional, and
promotes the ideals of physical therapy as a profession.
Mr. Guccione was a candidate for the degree of Master of Science
in Physical Therapy at Sargent College of Allied Health Professions,
Boston University, when this study was conducted. He is currently
Staff Physical Therapist, Physical Therapy Department, Massachusetts Rehabilitation Hospital, 125 Nashua St, Boston, MA 02114
(USA).
Adapted from a paper presented at the Fourth Annual Convention
of the Massachusetts Chapter, American Physical Therapy Association, Hyannis, MA, April 1978.
This article was submitted April 2, 1979, and accepted January 4,
1980.

1264

therapy.

Thompson has suggested that there are three


sources of conflict for health professionals making
ethical decisions. 2 First, conflicts may arise between
an individual's private convictions and his conception
of the requirements of his professional role. Second,
ethical dilemmas may be encountered when the attitudes, values, and goals of one profession conflict
with those of another. Finally, the ethos (ideology) of
a profession and that of the society in which it functions may be in conflict.
Professional ethics has developed in response to
these sources of conflict, and the APTA CODE OF
ETHICS and the guidelines for its interpretation
emerge historically and sociologically with that development. 1 The C O D E may be regarded as an attempt
to counsel physical therapists making ethical judgments by asserting the ideals of the profession and by
defining some of the limits of professionally and
morally acceptable behavior. Continuing documentation of the ethical concerns of practicing physical
therapists is essential to maintain timely counsel.
The twofold purpose of this study was to identify
which ethical problems were perceived by physical
therapists to be the most frequently encountered and
PHYSICAL THERAPY

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the most difficult to solve in their daily professional


practice.
Simply stated, ethics, or moral philosophy, is critical, analytical thinking about the behavioral expressions of human interdependence and what is the
morally right thing to do. Currently, the complexities
of medical practice have given rise to ethical questions
that demand the participation of both medical personnel and academic ethicists in discussing the issues
involved. These discussions have served, at least, to
define what some of the problems are, but continuing
dialogue is needed to determine more adequately the
range of morally sound solutions.
Topics that have received attention include abortion, euthanasia, the right to health care, the patient's
rights while receiving health care, and the limits of
experimentation with human subjects. Although the
physical therapist is concerned with these issues as an
informed member of the health care team, his involvement in the decisions they require is sometimes not
directly evident. All moral dilemmas occur within a
context of proposed action. 2-4 Some ethical problems
are specific to physical therapists because what they
do is different from what physicians, nurses, and
other health professionals do. Other ethical problems
involve physical therapists in only limited or peripheral ways. Because of the context of certain ethical
problems, the ethics of health care professionals has
been recognized as an area of study akin to, but
distinct from, medical ethics.
In order to select a defensible choice, a decisionmaker first adopts a point of view from which to
interpret the facts. Any point of view adopted will
emphasize one kind of fact over another, perhaps
equally important, kind. The moral point of view is
distinguished from others by the kind of justification
given in support of a particular choice. For example,
the decision to perform passive range of motion because it will achieve certain treatment goals is reasoning from the therapeutic point of view. If a therapist
cites a legitimate physician referral as his reason for
performing passive range of motion, then he has
justified his choice from the legal point of view. If his
choice of passive range of motion is defended on the
grounds that it is the only procedure that would avoid
unnecessary harm to the patient, the decision has
been made according to the moral point of view.
Purtilo's discussion of the physical therapist as ethicist
is a significant contribution toward defining the moral
point of view for a health professional. 3 Generally, no
clinical decision is made without analyzing the situation from several points of view, but each point of
view is unique in the kind of questions it asks about

a proposed action. When an alternative is compatible


with one point of view and incompatible with an-

other, the uniqueness of different viewpoints is more


obvious. In these instances, the multiple dimensions
of judgments made by physical therapists are apparent. When the choice is easily compatible with several
viewpoints, however, there is a tendency to collapse
distinctions and regard the decision as a therapeutic
judgment only, ignoring ethical and other dimensions
of the situation.

Ethical Issues in Physical Therapy


The ethical dimension of actual clinical practice is
not well documented in the literature. Ethical development has been cited as a basic objective of physical
therapy education, 5 and several authors have noted
an ethical dimension in the routine functions of the
physical therapist. 3,6-11 Behavior guided by an ethical
code has been described as identifying physical therapy as a profession rather than a technology and as
contributing to professional stature. 1,10,11 Often, physical therapists have been encouraged to exhibit particular behaviors. Exact recommendations have been
made, for example, on selection of topics for discussion with patients,8"10 the uses of proper vocal tone
when speaking with patients, 9,10 presentation of a
modest appearance, 9 cooperation with and ultimate
deference to the physician's judgment concerning
patient treatment, 8-11 and maintenance of a patient's
dignity and his confidence in his physician.8"11 There
has been little discussion of the moral principles
behind these expectations, and the ways in which
they pose problems for the therapist have not always
been identified. If the underlying principles are not
made explicit, recommendations for particular behaviors are no more compelling than remarks on professional etiquette. Physical therapy education that does
not cover ethical theory, as well as application, may
inadvertently trivialize the importance of ethical behavior.
Discussions of professional ethics can seem overwhelmingly complex, and the question of where to
begin is posed as often as the question of what to do.
A guiding assumption of this study is that, while all
ethical problems are important, attention should be
directed first to those ethical issues that affect and
perplex the majority. The results of this survey provide a focus for that attention.

METHOD
Subjects
Four hundred fifty members of the APTA were
selected at random from the total APTA membership
in the six New England states (N = 2,017) as of

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1265

December 1977. The sole criterion for inclusion in


the study was that a therapist be employed in some
aspect of therapy excluding education. A major assumption of this study is that problems of professional
ethics originate within the specific context of clinical
practice. Therapists whose primary employment is in
academic education do not experience that context
on a daily basis. Also, educators and graduate students were not included because they might be more
sensitive to the complexities of some ethical issues
and thus skew the results.
Instrument
Thirty items that described situations suggestive of
ethical problems were presented to the sample in a
questionnaire format. Inasmuch as demographic differences are often a source of variations in response,
data were collected on age, sex, total years of physical
therapy work experience, and highest educational
level obtained, as well as the respondent's present
type of employment facility, level of his position,
setting of employment, and state. Information on
sources of contact with issues of professional ethics
and the number of physical therapists available to
discuss actual ethical problems was also collected.
Procedure
Respondents were asked to score items according
to the frequency with which they had encountered a
situation of the type described in their own professional practice and the difficulty they experienced in
reaching a decision in those instances. The frequency
measure had five levels: high, moderate, minimal,
none, and not applicable. The difficulty measure had
four levels: extreme, moderate, minimal, and none.
Assuming that ethical problems arise out of a particular context, accurate measurement of the difficulty
of an item requires at least minimal experience with
it. In cases in which a respondent reported having no
experience with the situation described by an item, or
thought it inapplicable to him, the difficulty rating
was excluded from the results.
Data Analysis
The Kolmogorov-Smirnov One-Sample Test was
employed to determine the significance of the distribution of responses on both the frequency and the
difficulty scales. 12 This test measures the agreement
between a theoretical cumulative distribution of responses and an observed cumulative distribution. If
responses are divided almost equally among the levels
of a scale, there will be no significant difference
between the theoretical and the observed distributions. In order to consider a level on a scale to be a
significant preference of the respondents, it must be
demonstrated that the dissimilarity between a theo1266

retical array of data values and the actual or observed


array could not have happened by chance. The absolute value of the maximum deviation (D m a x ) between the theoretical and the observed arrays determines whether a significant preference exists for one
of the possible response choices. The rigor of this test
is great for small groups, and, thus, in some of the
breakdowns of responses reported below, only the . 1
level of confidence was reached.
In order to determine which issues warrant attention according to the frequency and the difficulty
criteria, an arbitrary lower limit was imposed. The
issues raised by items that were not perceived as at
least moderately frequent or at least moderately difficult by a minimum of 35 percent of the respondents
were rejected as priority issues (Figure). The issues
covered in those items that met both the frequency
and the difficulty criteria levels were designated primary issues of professional ethics for physical therapists. The items that met either the frequency or the
difficulty criterion level, but not both, were designated secondary issues of professional ethics.

1. Deciding criteria for allowing a patient/family t o refuse treatment.


2. Accepting gratuities or gifts from patients/families.
3 . Deciding what to do when my values
and beliefs are at o d d s with a
patient's/family's values and beliefs.
4. Setting t h e limits n e c e s s a r y to maintain professional relationships with patients/families.
5. Controlling a c c e s s to privileged or
confidential information about a patient/family.
6. Choosing a form of d r e s s that a s s u r e s
professional respect and maintains
identity a s a physical therapist.
7. Deciding when I d o not have a d e q u a t e
therapeutic knowledge to treat a patient.
8. Setting financially sound fees that
maintain a patient's ability to receive
treatment.
9. Providing a c c u r a t e information to cons u m e r s about t h e c o s t s of treatment.
10. Determining methods for making the
particulars of physical therapy services known t o health care consumers.
1 1 . Deciding t h e limits for standing by my
own ethical principles.
Figure. Issues that did not meet either criterion.
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TABLE 1
Characteristics Profile of

RESULTS AND DISCUSSION


Respondents

a. Under 3 0 years old


b. Female
c. 6 years or l e s s total physical therapy work e x p e r i e n c e
d. Baccalaureate d e g r e e
e. Employed in a c u t e general facilities
f. Employed in an urban area
g. Learned about professional ethics
in P.T. c o u r s e only
h. had 3 or more therapists available
to d i s c u s s actual ethical problems

61.3
85.4
58.1

186
185
184

72.7
42.8

187
187

43.5
59.9

184
181

69.0

187

Two hundred seven questionnaires were returned,


representing a 46 percent response. Of these, 187
(41.5%) were usable. Major demographic characteristics are presented in the respondents' profile (Tab.
1). Primary and secondary issues were grouped on the
basis of the kind of concern each expressed. F o u r
groups of concerns were identifiied: decisions regarding the choice to treat, obligations deriving from the
patient-therapist contract, moral obligation and economic issues, and a physical therapist's relationship
with other health professionals. A single item that
examined conflicts between values also merited discussion.

TABLE 2
Decisions Regarding the Choice to Treat

1. Establishing priorities for patient treatment when


time or resources are limited.

High
Mod
Min
None

Frequency
n
%
67
36.0
70
37.6
24.7
46
1.6
3
N = 186 100.0

Ext
Mod
Min
None

D m a x = .237a

2. Discontinuing treatment for patients who habitually


disregard instructions such as for home programs,
treatment regimens, and safety instructions.

High
Mod
Min
None

3. Continuing treatment with a terminally ill patient.

High
Mod
Min
None

Nursing Homes and Chronic Care Facilities


High
Mod
Min
None

4. Continuing treatment to provide psychological support after physical therapy treatment goals have
been reached.

High
Mod
Min
None

Nursing Homes and Chronic Care Facilities


High
Mod
Min
None

a
b
c

13
7.5
61
35.3
88
50.9
11
6.4
N = 173 100.0
D max = .186 a
14.4
25
63
36.2
46.0
80
3.4
6
N = 174 100.0
D max = .216 a
1
6.2
12
75.0
3
18.8
0
0.0
N = 16 100.0
Dmax = .312 C
16.5
30
69
37.9
72
39.6
6.0
11
N = 182 100.0
D max = -19 a

Ext
Mod
Min
None

Ext
Mod
Min
None

Ext
Mod
Min
None

Difficulty
n
9
74
89

10

%
4.9
40.7
48.9

5.5

N = 182 100.0
D max = .201 a
23
14.3
62
38.5
65
40.4
11
6.8
100.0
N = 161
D max = .181 a
22
13.2
72
43.1
52
31.1
21
12.6
N = 167 100.0
D max = .124 b

34
60
64

20.0
35.3
37.6
7.1
12
N = 170 100.0
D max = .179 a

7
43.8
37.5
6
3
18.8
_0
0.0
N = 16 100.0
D max = .313 c

p < .01.
p < .05.
p < .1.

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1267

Decision to Treat

Patient-Therapist Contract

The first group of concerns to be considered consisted of four related primary issues regarding who
should be treated (Tab. 2). More than 70 percent of
the respondents perceived the basic question of establishing priorities for patient treatment when time or
resources are limited as moderately or highly frequent. This questionnaire item was also rated at least
moderately difficult by slightly more than 45 percent
of all those who had experienced the problem. Using
the frequency and the difficulty criteria, responding
therapists also regarded discontinuation of treatment
on the grounds of habitual noncompliance as a second
primary issue of professional ethics. Third, continuation of treatment with the terminally ill is a priority
issue, especially for therapists in nursing homes and
chronic care facilities, for whom the frequency of this
situation is greater than for other therapists. Fourth,
continuation of treatment to provide psychological
support after physical therapy treatment goals have
been reached is a primary issue for over half of the
responding therapists, again more frequent for therapists working in nursing homes and chronic care
facilities.

The therapist's professional relationship to a patient is a major source of moral obligation. Basic
questions concerning the often-unspoken contract between patient and therapist were apparently not a
problem to the respondents. The primary issue in
patient-therapist interaction emerged from a conflict
concerning professional adjudication between a
patient's needs or goals and a family's needs or
goals (Tab. 3). The respondents identified this dilemma as the primary issue of the second group of concerns.

When deciding whom to treat, a therapist is required, in part, to consider two important aspects of
this type of professional judgment. First, it is becoming apparent that the increase in the number of
patients needing physical therapy knowledge and
skills could become overwhelming. The expansion of
physical therapy into new areas, in which the profession offers a unique viewpoint, forces the choice of
which patients shall be treated and which shall not.
Even when research into the efficacy of treatment
for certain types of patients sheds some light on this
matter, the therapist is still confronted with a second,
and perhaps more important, considerationpersonal beliefs and values. Underlying all therapists'
ethical decisions are the values that help to direct
their choices. 13 The extent to which a person values
psychological support for patients beyond the usual
physical therapy intervention, as well as what he
thinks is an appropriate response to the needs of a
dying patient, bear heavily on what he will choose to
do. Conflict between personal values and professional
values, or between the profession's values and society's attitudes, may easily arise. The professional
organization's declaration of its values sometimes is
helpful in these instances. However, beyond this declaration, each physical therapist must decide what he
values as a health professional. Educators may need
to provide the student with the opportunity to examine his own values as he is formally and informally
socialized into the profession.
1268

The nature of the patient-therapist contract has


changed as physical therapy has increased its function
and scope within the health care system. The first of
six secondary issues in this group of concerns stems
directly from this change, which augmented the education component of clinical practice. A problem in
defining the physical therapist's role in the initial
education of a patient or family regarding diagnosis
or prognosis was encountered often enough to warrant attention. This situation was experienced with
high frequency by 45 percent of all therapists whose
primary employment was in pediatric facilities or
school-system settings. Students pursuing careers in
the treatment of developmental disabilities should be
urged to consider the ethical aspects of this problem
in clinical judgment. Two other secondary issues
whose frequency merit discussion are questions about
informing a patient or family about the limitations of
treatment and assuring that the patient or family have
input into treatment and discharge planning.
The three remaining secondary issues in this group
of concerns emanate from the patient's expectations
of the therapist. First, the knowledge that a therapist
might be expected to bring to the treatment situation
was examined in an item that questioned the assumption of personal responsibility for continuing education. Over 84 percent of the respondents noted that
decisions allowing them to keep up with new treatment ideas had to be made with either moderate or
high frequency. The limits of the clinician's obligation
to update his practice are unclear. Continuing education is well-recognized as an essential of providing
quality health care. However, the growth of physical
therapy knowledge and the increasing cost of continuing education courses also demand consideration.
The final two secondary issues pertaining to patient's expectations are encountered in actual treatment: weighing the effects of treatment against the
discomfort created by the procedure and maintaining
a patient's sense of personal space and dignity during
treatment. Both of these issues are usually addressed
in the classroom and the clinical education of the

PHYSICAL THERAPY
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student, and this survey's results suggest that this


practice should continue. Each of these items was
rated only minimally difficult by more than half of
the respondents. This may be attributable to the
attention these issues have received in the respondent's education.

Moral Obligation and Economic Issues


Some economic issues have a moral component,
and the respondents identified both a primary and a
secondary issue of professional ethics relating to economics (Tab. 4). Decisions about whether to represent

TABLE 3
Obligations Deriving from the Patient-Therapist Contract
Frequency
n
1. Determining professional responsibilities when a
p a t i e n t s n e e d s or g o a l s conflict with the family's
n e e d s or g o a l s .

2. Defining the limits of the physical therapist's role


in the initial education of a patient/family regarding
diagnosis or prognosis.

High
Mod
Min
None

High
Mod
Min
None

8
64
97
12

Difficulty
n

%
4.4
35.4
53.6
6.6

N = 181
100.0
D max = . 2 0 5 a
32
17.9
70
39.1
70
39.1
7
3.9

N = 169
Dmax

Ext
Mod
Min
None

N = 179
100.0
D max = . 2 8 9 a
Pediatric Facilities and School System Settings
High
9
45.0
Mod
6
30.0
Min
5
25.0
None
0
0.0

3 . Informing a patient/family about the limitations of


treatment.

High
Mod
Min
None

N = 20
100.0
D max = . 4 5 a
52
28.0
83
44.6
49
26.3
2
1.1
N = 186
Dmax =

4 . Assuring that the patient/family h a s input into


treatment and discharge planning.

5. Assuming personal responsibility for continuing


education to k e e p up with new treatment ideas in
order to maintain quality of care.

6. Weighing the effects of treatment against the discomfort created by the procedure.

7. Maintaining a patient's s e n s e of personal s p a c e


and dignity when treatment requires arrangements
s u c h a s c l o s e proximity and group settings.

High
Mod
Min
None

62
83
32
1

Ext
Mod
Min
None

100.0

%
9.5
42.0
38.5
10.1
100.0
.155 a

8
53
90
20

4.7
31.0
52.6
11.7

N = 171

100.0

5
51
102
26

2.7
27.7
55.4
14.1

N = 184

100.0

8
29
103
37

4.5
16.4
58.2
20.9

N = 177

100.0

14
61
73
34

7.7
33.5
40.1
18.7

N = 182

100.0

8
62
94
17

4.4
34.3
51.9
9.4

N = 181

100.0

2
17
108
39

1.2
10.2
65.1
23.5

N = 166

100.0

.239a

34.8
46.6
18.0
0.6

High
Mod
Min
None

N = 178
100.0
D max = . 3 1 5 a
39.5
73
44.9
83
14.1
26
3
1.6

High
Mod
Min
None

N = 185
100.0
D max = . 3 4 3 a
36
19.5
43.8
81
64
34.6
4
2.2

High
Mod
Min
None

N = 185
100.0
D max = . 2 2 8 a
51
29.0
65
36.9
28.4
50
5.7
10

Ext
Mod
Min
None

Ext
Mod
Min
None

Ext
Mod
Min
None

Ext
Mod
Min
None

N = 176
100.0
Dmax= .193a
a

16
71
65
17

Ext
Mod
Min
None

p < .01.

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1269

TABLE 4
Moral Obligation and Economic Issues
Frequency
n
1. Deciding whether to represent certain n e c e s s a r y
patient s e r v i c e s in a way that would meet thirdparty-payer limitations.

High
Mod
Min
None

36
51
42
15

%
25.0
35.4
29.2
10.4

2. Withholding or limiting physical therapy s e r v i c e s in


order to improve work conditions, salaries, staff/
patient ratios, etc.

High
Mod
Min
None

17.8
38.0
36.4
7.8

N = 129
100.0
Dmax = . 1 7 2 a

69.2
15.4
7.7
7.7

9
2
1
1

N = 13
100.0
D max = . 4 4 9 a
12
10.3
14
12.1
29
25.0
52.6
61
N = 116

23
49
47
10

Ext
Mod
Min
None

N = 144
100.0
Dmax= .146a
Nursing Home or Chronic Care Facilities
High
Mod
Min
None

Difficulty
n

21
16
13
5

Ext
Mod
Min
None

100.0

38.2
29.1
23.6
9.1

N = 55
100.0
Dmax = . 1 7 3 b

p < .01.
p < .1.
TABLE 5
Physical Therapist's Relationship to Other Health Professionals
Frequency
n

1. Maintaining a patient's/family's c o n f i d e n c e in
other health professionals regardless of personal
opinions.

High
Mod
Min
None

12.7
42.5
37.6
7.2

23
77
68
13
N = 181
Dmax =

2. Determining criteria for delegating duties to s u p portive personnel.

3 . Reporting questionable practices of another physical therapist to the appropriate person.

High
Mod
Min
None

High
Mod
Min
None

58
63
37
11

Difficulty

178a

34.3
37.3
21.9
6.5

8
62
75
23

Ext
Mod
Min
None

100.0
.

N = 169
100.0
Dmax = . 2 1 6 a
3.8
6
5
3.1
47.2
75
73
45.9
N = 159

Ext
Mod
Min
None

100.0
N = 168
Dmax = . 2 0 2 a
3.2
5
42
26.6
55.7
88
14.6
23
N = 158

100.0

37
28
17
4

43.0
32.6
19.8
4.7

Ext
Mod
Min
None

N = 86

100.0

Dmax =

4. Reporting questionable practices of a physician to


the appropriate person.

5. Reporting questionable practices of another health


professional w h o is not a physical therapist or a
physician to the appropriate person.

High
Mod
Min
None

High
Mod
Min
None

5
28
88
52

2.9
16.2
50.9
30.1

N = 173

100.0

7
22
90
48

4.2
13.2
53.9
28.7

N = 167

100.0

43.0
21.5
25.6
9.9

100.0
N = 121
Dmax = . 1 8 a
29.2
35
42
35.0
25.8
31
12
10.0
N = 120
Dmax

100.0
.256a

52
26
31
12

Ext
Mod
Min
None

Ext
Mod
Min
None

4.8
36.9
44.6
13.7

100.0
.15a

p < .01.

1270

PHYSICAL THERAPY
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certain necessary patient services in a way that would


meet the present limitations imposed by third-party
payers are not uncommon or easy to make. Almost
70 percent of those therapists working primarily with
patients in nursing home and chronic care facilities
perceived a high frequency of the need to make this
decision. The source of conflict is the difference between what a physical therapist may value as necessary for patients and what society regards as essential
to the health of those who are dependent upon it.

respect to peers and superiors. That place has changed


considerably with the development of the profession
and will continue to do so. 1 5 , 1 6
Four secondary issues were examined in this group
of concerns. Determinations of the criteria for delegating duties to supportive personnel occur frequently
enough to constitute a secondary issue of professional
ethics. Respondents did not frequently make decisions to report the questionable practices of another
physical therapist, physician, or other health profes-

TABLE 6
Conflicts Between Two Ethical Principles

1. Deciding what to do when two of my ethical principles or values are in conflict.

High
Mod
Min
None

Frequency
n
%
2
1.1
14.2
25
100
56.8
49
27.8
N = 176 100.0

Ext
Mod
Min
None

Difficulty
n
26
50
44
5
N = 125
Dmax

%
20.8
40.0
35.2
4.0
100.0
.21 a

p < .01.

There is, at present, no simple resolution to this


conflict. Those physical therapists concerned with this
issue should participate forcefully in changing societal
concepts of adequate and essential health care.
In light of developments in other health professions, which have included strikes by physicians and
nurses, 14 one question examined the issue of curtailment or limitation of physical therapy services in
order to improve work conditions, salaries, staff/patient ratios, and the like. Most of the respondents
perceived this item as inapplicable to their present
situations. Of those therapists who regarded this event
as a possibility, most had no personal experience of
it. However, slightly over 38 percent of those who had
experience with this problem reported that it was an
extremely difficult decision to make. Further examination of this issue may become necessary.

Relationship to Other Health Professionals


The last group of issues considered the physical
therapist's relationship to other health professionals
(Tab. 5). Maintaining a patient's or family's confidence in other health professionals regardless of personal opinions has traditionally been an issue of
professional ethics, 8-11 and the data collected show
that it was perceived to be the primary issue of this
group. The response that a therapist makes in situations of this type is derived, in part, from the place
the profession holds within the health care team with

sional. However, such a decision clearly poses moderate difficulty in the case of another health professional and extreme difficulty in the cases of another
physical therapist or a physician, when it needs to be
made.

Identification of Ethical Decisions


Ethical dilemmas arise when two or more ethical
principles or values conflict with each other in a given
situation. Despite the fact that respondents perceived
seven primary issues and they recognized the difficulty of making decisions when principles conflict,
they did not perceive themselves as making a choice
between conflicting principles or values with any
great frequency (Tab. 6). Although respondents recognized that a difficult decision had to be made in
some instances, they probably had not identified it as
a decision of ethical choice. The moral point of view
requires that some unique aspects of a situation be
explored. Failure to recognize that a moral point of
view is required is a first step toward unethical behavior. The educational implication of this data is
inescapable: in order to meet all the challenges of
clinical practice, physical therapy students must be
taught how to make ethical as well as clinical judgments. To prepare future clinicians less adequately
could jeopardize the integrity and the autonomy that
physical therapy as a health profession has so arduously worked to achieve.

Volume 60 / Number 10, October 1980


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1271

CONCLUSION

Complex ethical issues have emerged with the development of the profession. These issues pose an
important challenge to the clinician and require that
he develop skill in making ethical judgments in
professional practice. This study was undertaken to
achieve several objectives. First, to establish priorities
of concern so that the APTA can respond to the more
pressing ethical questions of its members. Second, to
identify the issues of professional ethics so as to
encourage discussion among physical therapists and

to promote application of the ideals expressed in the


APTA CODE OF ETHICS to actual situations. Third, to
summon the attention of academic ethicists so they
can offer their counsel on the issues raised. Fourth, to
alert educators to the needs of their students in order
to meet the challenges of ethical professional practice.
Fifth, to provide an opportunity for physical therapists to learn about and reflect upon the issues of
professional ethics as they have experienced them.
Acknowledgment. Grateful appreciation is expressed to Jane Coryell, PhD, Sargent College of
Allied Health Professions, Boston University, for her
assistance.

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PHYSICAL THERAPY
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Ethical Issues in Physical Therapy Practice: A


Survey of Physical Therapists in New England
Andrew A Guccione
PHYS THER. 1980; 60:1264-1272.

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