Sunday, March 08, 2015
Does seeing spots obligate you to point them out?
How obligated are you to alert someone about your concern that they might have a health problem?
A.C., a reader from the Midwest, was vacationing at a resort in the Dominican Republic with her husband and another couple. Both of their friends were general practice physicians.
One day, as the couples were sitting on the beach, a young woman who appeared to be about 18 to 20 years old walked by them. The husband of the physician couple noticed that the woman had a large dark spot on her skin, about the size of a large screw head. He commented to the group "that you'd think someone with a spot like that might not want to be wearing such skimpy swimwear that exposed her skin to the sun even more."
A.C. asked his doctor friend if he thought the spot was cancerous. He didn't, but said that given the young woman's age and the location of the spot, he thought it was most likely pre-cancerous. His wife agreed with him, but said she wouldn't be able to make a clear diagnosis without examining the spot more closely.
Neither physician felt that they should approach the woman and share their concerns about her health. Instead, they went for a walk along the beach.
"I was willing to tell her," writes A.C., but when the young lady passed by again, she was with her family and no one in the group was speaking English.
"Given the fact that I didn't want to give the wrong impression and put them in a panic, I let it pass," A.C. writes. "They left by the time our friends got back and we never saw them again."
Her decision not to approach the young lady still bothers A.C.
"Did I do the right thing by not bringing the spot to her attention?" she asks. "It is possible she was already aware of the spot and is having it looked at, but my conscience doesn't know that."
Whether or not the young woman and members of her family were speaking English at the resort is beside the point, since they may also have been fluent in English. The prospect of a language barrier was not enough to warrant not speaking to the woman.
Not wanting to throw the family into a panic seems a more reasonable response, since A.C. was not a doctor and had no idea if the spot was a health risk. If the trained physicians who were with her didn't believe it was their medical responsibility to alert the young woman, then it seems reasonable for A.C. to refrain from alerting her, as well.
Approaching a stranger and telling her she should have a spot on her skin checked out when you're not qualified to make that determination doesn't seem helpful. The right thing was for A.C. to consult with those who knew more about any potential health threat, seek their counsel, and then let it the matter lie.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin
Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to email@example.com.