Ethics in IT Consultancy – Primum non nocere


If you are a Medical Doctor, medical ethics are taught to you, you pledge an oath to uphold them  and the College of Physicians and Surgeons is there to remind you if your memory lapses with a  peer-controlled disciplinary action. At its very core, Medical ethics starts with “Primum non nocere”. First, Do no harm.

In professional consultancy we are often compensated as well as or more than our medical colleagues and quite often held to a much lower standard. We don’t of course have the responsibility of life and death … or do we?

I have worked for defence companies such as the former Paramax and Loral. Their “fire control” systems had nothing whatsoever to extinguishing a blaze and everything to do with extinguishing a life. I have worked on Medicaid systems that invoked prospective utilization rules to deny requested medical treatments and I have worked on ICU systems that have hastened someone’s trip to the morgue by reallocating ICU capacity. I have worked on welfare systems that knowingly exposed names and addresses of people in the Witness Protection program to people that should not have access. I have worked on an emergency management simulator that was buried very, very deeply because it showed real mortality projections of a accidental chemical leak. I have worked on an AFIS system where the implementation literally caused people to lose digits (anatomical). I have denied people the ability to vote, provided the ability for organizations to track someone’s movement and pushed people into bankruptcy. I have been well paid for every one of these.

As pay-by-the-minute IT contractors people simply implement what their clients ask for and ethics is never considered.  As professional consultants though our responsibilities should at a minimum include the requirement to inform our client of the potential impact of their decisions and yes in some cases to refuse to provide the service.

Let’s see if an IT version of the Hippocratic Oath works.

I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:

I will respect the hard-won scientific gains of those physicians in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.

  • ( I will make use of existing IP and not reinvent the wheel. I will create IP for the use of others so that as a profession , we all get better)

I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures [that] are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism.

  • ( I will use every tool at my disposal to build the best solution. I will not build solutions that are over-engineered just to over-bill and  I will not engage in endless meetings that accomplish nothing)

I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug.

  • ( I will not treat my clients as customers. They are better than that.)

I will not be ashamed to say “I know not”, nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a patient’s recovery.

  • ( I will not be ashamed to say “WTF? I don’t get it”, nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a client’s project)

I will respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given to me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.

  • ( I will respect the privacy of my clients. I will not play at God and must not act like Him either and will not engage in projects that put me in that position )

I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person’s family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the sick.

  • ( I will remember that high risk projects include high personal risk for my client and will engage to mitigate their risk )

I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure.

  • ( I will deliver a solution that is supportable )

I will remember that I remain a member of society with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.

  • ( I will try to be nice even to my crazy clients)

If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, be respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of healing those who seek my help.

  • (If I keep the oath, I will have a long and enjoyable career as a professional IT consultant)

Not every client engagement has a significant ethical challenges, but some do. As a profession it is perhaps time to ask if we should; first, do no harm.

Yesterday, a motorist in California ran over and killed a 4 year old girl. The driver was filling out a CRM form on his iPad when he struck her.

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