Clinical Ethics Consultation

The dictionary defines consulting as "providing professional or expert advice." A clinical ethics consultant is defined here as a person who upon request provides expert advice to identify, analyze, and help resolve ethical questions or dilemmas that arise in the care of patients. Although the ethics consultant also may provide ethics education and help formulate policy, the bedside role is central to the definition of an ethics consultant (Jonsen).

In the United States, clinical ethics consultation began in some academic medical centers in the late 1960s and early 1970s (La Puma and Schiedermayer), and was given great impetus by the development of hospital ethics committees in the late 1970s and 1980s. During this period the rapid growth of medical technology confronted critically ill patients, their families, and health professionals with difficult ethical choices. At the same time, the traditional authority of the physician was challenged not only by the patient-rights and consumer-rights movements, but also by changes in the way medical care was delivered in tertiary-care hospitals, where patients were often treated by teams consisting of physicians, nurses, social workers, medical technicians, and others. Decisions about forgoing life-sustaining treatment for incompetent adults or premature infants were being made in a legal vacuum often filled by the fears of civil and even criminal litigation. In this atmosphere there was considerable uncertainty about the optimum process for resolving difficult ethical decisions without resorting to the public arena of the courts.

In its 1976 Quinlan decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court tentatively suggested the use of ethics committees to assist persons who faced difficult end-of-life decisions. In the early 1980s, the federal "Baby Doe" regulations spurred hospitals to develop internal mechanisms for dealing with decision making for severely handicapped infants. In 1983 the U.S. President's Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research endorsed the notion of shared decision making between patients and physicians. It suggested consultation with an ethics committee as a possible means for resolving disputes that arose in the clinical setting, but noted that the efficacy of such consultation had not been demonstrated (U.S. President's Commission).

In 1985 the National Institutes of Health and the University of California at San Francisco cosponsored a conference in Bethesda, Maryland, for persons designated by their institutions as ethics consultants. The conference was attended by fifty-three invitees, and fifty additional persons expressed interest in attending a future meeting of this group (Fletcher, 1986). By 1987 the Society for Bioethics Consultation was formed for the support and continuing education of clinical ethics consultants. In 1992 the Joint Commission for the Accreditation of Health Care Organizations (JCAHO) published a requirement for healthcare institution accreditation that all healthcare institutions must have in place a mechanism for resolving disputes concerning end-of-life decisions.

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