Views & Reviews Personal View

Who would want to be medicine’s sacrificial lamb?

BMJ 2009; 338 doi: (Published 15 June 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b2414
  1. Julian Sheather, senior ethics adviser, BMA
  1. jsheather{at}

    Audiences can be fickle things. Recently I clambered down from my ivory tower and emerged, blinking, on to a brilliantly lit podium at the Cheltenham science festival. The theme of the evening was “Playing God—risk in surgery.” I was on a panel with two surgeons, but my job was to do the ethics. I figured that the live issue would be about balancing paternalism and autonomy. Was there a limit to the amount of risk a patient could be asked to take on? Could illness and the possibility of death be coercive? Could an ambitious surgeon, keen to make a name, lead the desperate into taking impossible and mutilating risks?

    How rose tinted must be the windows of the ivory tower. I could not have been more wrong. A charming cardiac surgeon took us on a walk down memory lane, a long, long walk back to the good old, bad old days, the days before the scandals at Alder Hey and Bristol Royal Infirmary had …

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