The period since 1970 has seen the development and maturation of the field of bioethics into a major area of scholarly inquiry. Scholarship in bioethics has traditionally relied on the discipline of moral philosophy and has taken a normative or prescriptive stance. However, bioethics is primarily a field of practical and applied study as well as a theoretical one. As such, to be relevant and useful to the providers and consumers of healthcare, bioethics must address questions and recommend solutions in the real world. Empirically-based studies provide an understanding of public and professional attitudes, practices, and the implications and intersections of practice and policy. These studies can provide information about the level at which purported problems actually exist and can be described and quantified. Similarly, they can measure the success or failure of public policies designed to help solve bioethics problems.
Employing the qualitative and quantitative methodologies of the social sciences and public health, bioethics scholars, often in collaboration with clinicians and scientists, have shed light on important bioethics questions such as:
• Patient and family preferences for treatment at the end of life;
• Nature and quality of communication between patients and physicians;
• Attitudes and understanding of informed consent by investigators and research subjects;
• Competency and the robustness of individual's stated wishes about end of life treatment;
• Why policy and legislative initiatives have failed to increase consent rates to organ donation;
• Impact of new genetic information on individuals, families, and society;
• Equity in allocation of scarce resources such as dialysis and organ transplantation;
• Disparities in the provision of care to ethnic minorities.
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