You don't need to be signed in to read BMJ Blogs, but you can register here to receive updates about other BMJ products and services via our Group site.

clinical ethics

Natal Nativism

12 Oct, 16 | by Iain Brassington

Scene: the boardroom of a large NHS Trust, somewhere in England.

“And so that brings us neatly to the last item on the agenda: passport checks for pregnant women who want a checkup.  The thing is, you see, that it turns out that we’ve been providing obstetric care to some women who aren’t actually UK citizens.  And, clearly, that has to stop.”
“To stop?”
“Well, maybe not stop.  But you know what I mean.  We can’t go providing treatment to anyone who comes knocking at the door!  Why, we’d have a queue from here to Timbuktu, not to mention the cost!”
“Oh, quite.  No, I quite agree that we can’t be the world’s supplier of healthcare.”
“No.  So that’s settled, then.  No more obstetric services to women who can’t demonstrate their eligibility.”
“You don’t look convinced.  What’s the problem?  These women aren’t eligible.”
“Well, no.  But… well, look.  Remember when Dr Smith retired, and when Dr Jones got that transfer to work in the Inner Hebrides?”
“All too well.  Two great losses to the Trust.  What’s your point?”
“Well, I seem to remember that we pooled together to buy them nice leaving presents.”
“We did.  It was the least we could do.”
“I agree.  But, you see, the thing is, they weren’t actually entitled to them.  If you see what I mean.”
“I’m not sure I follow.”
“No.  Well, you see, the thing is, we bought them those presents, and gave them to them, because it’s the decent thing to do.  There’s no rule that says that we have to buy them.  They wouldn’t have been wronged if we hadn’t.”
“Yeeeeeeessssss…  I mean, no.  But yes.”
“But we gave them the presents anyway.  Because the rules set out what’s minimially decent.  Not an upper limit.”
“Well, you see, I was just wondering: might the same apply in other contexts?  Allowing for the obvious differences, of course.”
“You’re losing me again.”
“I thought I might be.  Well, you see, it’s like this.  We’ve been providing treatment to pregnant women without paying attention to whether they’re entitled by the strict letter of the law.  And that law specifies who is entitled to treatment.  But that doesn’t necessarily impose any exclusions.  You see, I wonder if by getting bogged down in the rules, we might… um…”
“Might what?”
“Well, you see, the thing is…”
“Go on…”
“Look: we might end up looking like utter shits.”

Wholly fictional, this, of course.  No such conversation took place.  On the other hand, as reported by the Beeb, here’s a document from St George’s University NHS Trust.  Skip to p80: more…

An Accidental Expert

9 Aug, 16 | by miriamwood

Guest Post by Derick Wade

Re: Back to the Beside: Making Clinical Decisions in Patients with Prolongued Unconsciousness

In 1994, not long after the Bland judgement, I was telephoned one day by the office of the Official Solicitor. “Was I familiar with the vegetative state, and if so would I be prepared to see two people for them?”  I could reasonably honestly answer that I was familiar with it – one sees people left unconscious long after brain injury in my line of work.  I did not claim expertise, and nor was I asked.  I said “yes, to both questions.” and was sent relevant guidelines, and instructions.  With practice I improved, and I wrote my first article on the matter with one of the Official Solicitors, published in the BMJ.  I also saw one case who was definitely not vegetative (and two very well know experts had said that she was); the case has been written up with a ten year follow-up (not by me).

In about 2000, having seen about fifteen or more cases for the Official Solicitor and various NHS hospitals, the next chance event occurred.  Talking one evening with my family about my work, my elder daughter asked me what I thought about the ethics of withdrawing food and fluid.  I replied something like “Well, I have never really thought about it.” which horrified her, and surprised me (though research suggests that actually I am quite normal in that regard, as doctors usually consider matters clinically, not ethically).  Anyway, I decided to research the issue and wrote another article, which was also published in the BMJ.  Interestingly despite making several provocative statements, I only received one letter about it.


No Diagnosis for You, Matey!

5 Aug, 16 | by Iain Brassington

Here’s a little amusement for the weekend, from a friend who lives in the States:

I received a state of the arts cardio monitor, per a prescription from a cardiologist, to determine if I have an irregular heart beat.  All chrome and aluminium and clean and small with various electronic devices to transmit “information” to the company.  40 pages of instructions for the phone-like device.  At one point the book (and the device) instruct me (i.e., tell me, not ask me) to push YES regarding company’s use of my information for research.  I push NO.

Device will not allow diagnostic testing.

Call doctor.

Doctor upset I won’t allow use of info.

I didn’t care UNTIL they told me I can’t use this device UNLESS I consent to use of the information for research.  Now they are scrambling to ‘override’ the yes-only option, if possible.

I have to admit that, from a professional point of view, that’s kind of brilliant.  And I suppose that it is consent, in a Hobson’s choice kind of a way.

The Challenge of Futile Treatment

29 Jul, 16 | by Iain Brassington

Guest Post by Lindy Willmott and Ben White

For decades, researchers from around the world have found evidence that doctors provide futile treatment to adult patients who are dying.  Some discussion of this topic has turned on matters of definition (see our recent contribution to this debate), with a broader concept of “perceived inappropriate treatment” being favoured by commentators more recently.  However, this debate skirts the fundamental issue: how can treatment that may prolong or increase patient suffering, waste scarce health care resources, and cause distress to health care workers still occur in hospitals around the world?  In other words, in these days of overworked doctors and underfunded healthcare systems, how is this still an issue?

Some research has tackled this although it has tended to focus on doctors operating in intensive care units and there has been very little research which looks at the reasons given by doctors from a range of specialties about why futile treatment is provided at the end of life.

Our study, undertaken by a team of interdisciplinary researchers, explored the perceptions on this topic of doctors, from a range of specialities, who are commonly involved with treatment at the end of life.  We interviewed 96 doctors at three hospitals in Queensland, Australia, from a range of specialities including intensive care, oncology, internal medicine, cardiology, geriatrics, surgery, and emergency.  Doctors reported that doctor-related and patient-related factors were the main drivers of futile treatment, although reasons relating to the institutional nature of hospitals were also important.

We found that doctor-related reasons were important in the provision of futile end-of-life care.  Many doctors reported attitudes of their colleagues that reflect a cultural aversion to death.  Doctors saw themselves as trained healers who viewed every death as a failure, and pursued a cure rather than appropriate palliative treatment for dying patients.  Doctors described wanting to help the patient and not give up hope that a treatment might provide some benefit.  They also said they wanted to satisfy patients, families, and medical professionals themselves that everything possible had been done, due to both emotional attachment to the patient and fear of the legal consequences of refusing demands for treatment.  They also admitted to providing families and patients with a smorgasbord of treatment options as a means of avoiding uncomfortable conversations about dying.  Doctors’ personalities, religious backgrounds, and their own experiences with death and dying were also said to contribute to the giving of futile treatment. more…

Individualised and Personalised QALYs in Exceptional Treatment Decisions

28 Jul, 16 | by BMJ

Guest Post by Warwick Heale

When NICE decides whether to make a treatment available on the NHS it considers both clinical effectiveness and cost effectiveness.  Cost effectiveness is based on population-level QALY data, as is appropriate for a population-level policy.  However, this can cause problems for exceptional individual patients.

When a doctor wants to offer an individual patient a treatment that has been deemed by NICE not to be cost-effective, the doctor can make an Individual Funding Request (IFR) to NHS England or a Clinical Commissioning Group.  The doctor must convince the IFR Panel that the patient is exceptional and that it is worth spending the money on this patient, leaving less to be spent on others.  The Panel’s presumption, based on the population-level data, is that the treatment will not be cost effective, and this stacks the cards against the individual patient, however extreme the patient or their condition may be compared to the population average.

One solution to this might be to consider individualised cost or response (individualised QALYs) or personalised valuations of health states (personalised QALYs).  Applying these concepts might protect the patient from a treatment being refused even if he or she is markedly different from the population average.  In doing this, we would actually promote utility and effective use of resources which is one aim of the IFR process, but one which I think it fails to achieve as effectively as it might.

Consideration of personalised QALYs also offers a justification for offering a Jehovah’s Witness a more costly alternative to blood transfusion, on the basis that this would actually maximise the utility we gain from our limited resources – in contradiction to the more obvious view that this would compromise utility.  Furthermore, in doing this we don’t need to give any special status to religious considerations – the Jehovah’s Witness, the patient of a different faith and the atheist should all be subject to the same principles of personalised QALYs.  Personalised QALYs also allow us to think about patient choice alongside utility rather than as independent principles.

Read the full paper here.

There’s Argument, and there’s Disputation.

7 Jun, 16 | by Iain Brassington

Very well, then: let’s allow that the quality of argument in bioethics – and clinical ethics in particular – is not of high quality.  What should be done about it?

That’s a hard question, though it’s predictable and wholly justifiable that it should be asked.  And, to be honest, I don’t know offhand.  I might have a few germs of ideas, but nothing that I’d be prepared to mention in public.  That doesn’t mean that I can’t look at other ideas, and test them out.  One such idea is mooted in this paper by Merrick et al: in essence, they propose a sort of debating competition.  They begin by explaining – with some plausibility – some of the factors that make it a bit hard to get full-blooded engagement with ethics in the medical curriculum:

As educators, we have observed additional challenges medical students face in their ethics education, which echo others’ experiences. First, because of the prodigious amount of information medical students are presented with during their first two years of training, they typically adopt a strategy of selectively reading assignments, attending large lectures, and participating in small group discussions.  In this context, ethics appears to be deprioritized, because, from the students’ perspective, it is both more demanding and less rewarding than other subjects.  Unlike other subjects, ethics requires students to reflect on their personal moral sensibilities in addition to understanding theory and becoming familiar with key topics and cases.  Yet, also unlike other courses, poor marks in ethics rarely cause academic failure, given the way performance in medical school curricula is typically evaluated.  Thus, ethics is both more demanding—because of the burdens of self-reflection—and less rewarding—because excellence in ethics does not contribute significantly to grades or test scores.

Second, medical students face challenges in how they individually conceptualize the value of ethics in the medical context.  Although many indicate that morality is important to them, they also suggest that it is a subject matter that relates to their personal, as opposed to professional, actions.  Instead, students often conflate the domains of institutional policy and health law (especially risk management and malpractice litigation) with medical ethics.  Although these domains are obviously also of essential concern for future physicians, they remain distinguishable from ethical issues likely to emerge in practice.  Consequently, rigorous and effective ethics education within the medical school context faces the challenge of distinguishing ethics from other aspects of professionalism.

Too often, ethics gets run alongside communication skills training (well, it’s all about getting informed consent, isn’t it?  Eh?  Eh?); and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked to prepare multiple choice questions for ethics assessment.  (Standard answer: nope.  It’s got to be an essay of some sort, or it’s not worth doing.)

So what to do?  The paper, as I’ve already said, suggests a quasi-competitive debating competition, in which teams of students are given a problem, and a limited time to make a case in response to that problem.  An opposing team then has a limited amount of time to place a counterargument.  Then they swap roles, so the counterarguing team gets to make the argument, and the previous arguers now become counter-arguers.  Judges can ask questions, and assign a score.  “The basic aim of the MEB curriculum,” the authors say,

is to help students learn how to produce and present an argument for an ethical position in response to a realistic clinical situation.


Every now and again I get asked to help judge debating competitions – sometimes for academic institutions, sometimes for non-University bodies, sometimes for others (*cough* Instituteofideas *cough*).  I used to be happy to help out.  But I’m not so sure now. more…

Writers Whose Expertise is Deplorably Low

4 Jun, 16 | by Iain Brassington

Something popped up on my twitter feed the other day: this document from Oxford’s philosophy department.  (I’m not sure quite what it is.  Brochure?  In-house magazine?  Dunno.  It doesn’t really matter, though.)  In it, there’s a striking passage from Jeff McMahan’s piece on practical ethics:

Even though what is variously referred to as ‘practical ethics’ or ‘applied ethics’ is now universally recognized as a legitimate area of philosophy, it is still regarded by some philosophers as a ghetto within the broader 
area of moral philosophy.  This view is in one way warranted, as there is much work in such sub-domains of practical ethics as bioethics and business ethics that is done by writers whose expertise is in medicine, health policy, business, or some area other than moral philosophy, and whose standards of rigour in moral argument
are deplorably low.  These writers also tend
 to have only a superficial understanding of normative ethics.  Yet reasoning in practical ethics cannot be competently done without sustained engagement with theoretical issues
in normative ethics.  Indeed, Derek Parfit believes that normative and practical ethics are so closely interconnected that it is potentially misleading even to distinguish between them.  In his view, the only significant distinction is between ethics and metaethics, and even that distinction is not sharp.  [emphasis mine]

It’s a common complaint among medical ethicists who come from a philosophical background that non-philosophers are (a) not as good at philosophy, (b) doing medical ethics wrong, (c) taking over.  All right: there’s an element of hyperbole in my description of that complaint, but the general picture is probably recognisable.  And I don’t doubt that there’ll be philosophers grumbling along those lines at the IAB in Edinburgh in a couple of weeks.  There’s a good chance that I’ll be among them.

There’s a lot going on in McMahan’s piece, and his basic claim is, I suppose, open to a claim that, being a philosopher, he would say that, wouldn’t he?  But even if that claim is warranted, it doesn’t follow that it’s false.  And it probably isn’t false.  There is some very low-quality argument throughout bioethics (and, from what I remember from my time teaching it, business ethics) – more particularly, in the medical ethics branch of bioethics, and more particularly still, in the clinical ethics sub-branch.  Obviously, I’m not going to pick out any examples here, but many of us could point to papers that have been simply not very good, because the standard of philosophy was low, without too much difficulty.  Often, these are papers we’ve peer-reviewed, and that haven’t seen the light of day.  But sometimes they do get published, and sometimes they get given at conferences.  I’ve known people who make a point of trying to find the worst papers on offer at a given conference, just for the devilry.

It doesn’t take too much work to come up with the common problems: a tendency to leap to normative conclusions based on the findings of surveys, or empirical or sociological work; value-laden language allowing conclusions to be smuggled into the premises of arguments; appeals to vague and – at best – contentious terms like dignity or professionalism; appeals to nostrums about informed consent; cultural difference used as an ill-fitting mask for special pleading; moral theories being chosen according to whether they generate the desired conclusion; and so on.  Within our field, my guess is that appeals to professional or legal guidelines as the solutions to moral problems is a common fallacy.  Not so long ago, Julian noted that

[t]he moralists appear to be winning.  They slavishly appeal to codes, such as the Declaration of Helsinki.  Such documents are useful and represent the distillation of the views of reasonable people.  Still, they do not represent the final word and in many cases are philosophically naïve.

Bluntly: yes, the WMA or the BMA or the law or whatever might say that you ought to do x; and that gives a reason to to x inasmuch as that one has a reason to obey the law and so on.  But it’s unlikely that it’s a sufficient reason; it remains open to us always to ask what those institutions should say.  Suppose they changed their minds and insisted tomorrow that we should do the opposite of x: would we just shrug and get on with the business of undoing what we did today?

And yet…  The complaint about poor argument is not straightforward, for a couple of reasons. more…

Healthcare Ethics Consultants’ Place in the World of Health Care ‘Professionals’

17 May, 16 | by BMJ

Guest Post by Abraham Schwab

During a recent meeting at a local hospital, I was asked what role a good Healthcare Ethics Consultant should play.  I gave a more ambiguous answer than I would like.  I pointed out that Healthcare Ethics Consultants can help patients, providers, and administrators come to a common understanding of the values at play in a particular health care situation.  A Healthcare Ethics Consultant can also help them reach a decision that reflects the medical realities, the patient’s values, and, as appropriate, the families’ values.  But I also pointed out that the role of the Healthcare Ethics Consultant is determined by the particular institution’s needs.  One institution’s Healthcare Ethics Consult can look like another’s Family Care Conference or another’s Palliative Care Consult and so on.  In short, the Healthcare Ethics Consultant’s role and responsibilities is not neatly defined across institutional boundaries.

The American Society of Bioethics and Humanities (ASBH) Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibilities for Healthcare Ethics Consultants aims to “set out the core ethical responsibilities of individuals performing healthcare ethics consultation.”  If successful, it would provide guidance as clinical ethicists and others attempt to answer the question, “What is a Healthcare Ethics Consultant responsible for?”.  Looking over the ASBH’s code, however, it’s hard to imagine using it to provide a content-rich and clear answer.   As I argue in my paper, “The ASBH Code of Ethics and the Limits of Professional Healthcare Ethics Consultations”, the code falls short of its goal in two substantive ways.  First, the Code implicitly relies on the category “professional”, despite the fact that this category lacks clear definition.  Second, the code articulates only vaguely defined responsibilities.

The ASBH’s Code of Ethics is a short document – less than five pages – but invokes the word “professional” 14 times.  That the word is not defined in the code is of no surprise: the use of “professional” is common coin in health care fields.  And yet, the category “professional” is poorly defined.  As I argue, the best available definition is a formal one: professionals share a common commitment to something.  But that something remains undefined in general.  The concept of “profession” is a placeholder indicating that practitioners of a particular occupation have taken on certain additional obligations, and those obligations are specific to the profession in question.  When an occupation claims to be a “profession”, a necessary follow-up question is, “But what does that mean for your occupation?”  Ideally, the ASBH’s Code of Ethics would answer this question for Healthcare Ethics Consultants.

In this regard, the ASBH’s code falls far short.  Most of the broadly defined obligations could be the obligations of any occupation.  The obligations also include conceptual confusions, from conflating privacy and confidentiality to invoking the requirement that Healthcare Ethics Consultants should meet professional standards – the very standards that the Code itself should be providing.

Despite these shortcomings, I write to criticise the ASBH code, not to bury it.  Healthcare Ethics Consultants play important roles in the institutions in which they exist.  Help in defining their responsibilities is needed.  And so I also provide a suggestion for moving the ASBH code forward.  Specifically, the relationships between  “professionals” in health care has shifted.  The isolated responsibilities of the isolated physician have gone the way of the country doctor.  The work of health care “professionals” is now the work of a team and a system, and the responsibilities that attach to these “professionals” are team-based responsibilities.  Further defining the responsibilities of Healthcare Ethics Consultants will require a more comprehensive collaboration across disciplinary boundaries.

If the ASBH’s Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibilities for Healthcare Ethics Consultants is to help answer the question, “What role does a Healthcare Ethics Consultant play?”, it’s next iteration will have to provide more narrowly and clearly defined responsibilities.

Read the full paper here.

Patient Views about Consent, Confidentiality & Information-Sharing in Genetic Medicine.

29 Apr, 16 | by BMJ

Guest post by Sandi Dheensa, Angela Fenwick and Anneke Lucassen

Imagine you’re a clinician in genetic medicine.  For a while, you’ve been seeing Joe Bloggs, a patient with a mutation in a gene that’s caused a hereditary form of colon cancer.  As is your standard practice, you help Joe identify who in his family is also at risk and spend some time talking about how he’ll tell them.  The Bloggs’ are a large bunch: Joe has children, siblings, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, and cousins, all of whom might have the mutation.  Anyone who tests positive would be eligible for regular bowel screening, which – while not pleasant – makes it much more likely that any cancer will be caught at a  treatable stage.  Unfortunately, despite all this, you’ve reason to believe that Joe hasn’t told his relatives anything and now you’re unsure what to do.

What are your options?  You might say Joe’s confidentiality and autonomy are paramount: it’s up to him what he does, and, as his doctor, you’ve done your part by telling him the cancer is heritable.  Or you might argue that Joe’s family needs to know – but how  and when?  The GMC says you can share a patient’s personal information without consent if the benefit of doing so outweighs the risk: does the situation meet this criterion?  What if you share the information and Joe sues you for breaching his confidentiality?  But what if you don’t say anything and a relative develops a cancer that could’ve been prevented?  Won’t their trust in the health service be shaken if they knew you’d chosen not to share?  Indeed, the UK and Netherlands have recently seen cases where relatives  questioned the health service’s non-disclosure of relevant information.

Taking a “joint account” view of confidentiality from the outset would’ve avoided these situations.  The joint account involves viewing genetic and personal information as distinct: the possible inheritance of cancer is common to the whole Bloggs family, but that Joe has stage III bowel cancer is personal.  If genetic information is confidential to the family, not just the tested patient, you’d have told Joe upfront, before even drawing his blood, that you’d look into sensitive and appropriate ways to let his relatives know the information if they might benefit from it.  Later down the line, when it materialised he hadn’t told his family, it would’ve been easier to negotiate what to do.

In our recent JME paper, we explored the views of people affected by hereditary cancer and other conditions regarding the distinction between genetic and personal information, the levels of confidentiality afforded respectively, and healthcare professionals’ roles and responsibilities toward their patients’ relatives.

In line with the joint account approach, our interviewees considered their signs, symptoms, and diagnoses as personal, but thought genetic risk was familial and that their relatives needed to know about it. more…

No to Conscientious Objection Accommodation in Health Care

22 Apr, 16 | by BMJ

Guest post by Udo Schuklenk

Canada is currently in the midst of a national debate about the scope of assisted dying regulations and policies.  It’s a result of a 2015 Supreme Court ruling that declared parts of the country’s Criminal Code null and void that criminalises assisted dying.  As you would expect, there is a lot of forth and back happening between proponents of a permissive regime (à la Belgium/ Netherlands), and those who would like a restrictive regime.  Another issue is being debated as well as litigated in the courts, the seemingly intractable question of conscientious objection accommodation.

In preparation for incoming provincial policies on assisted dying, the provinces’ statutory medical bodies, such as for instance the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, have stipulated that while doctors are not obliged to provide directly assistance in dying to eligible patients, they must transfer patents on to a colleague who they know will provide that service.  A similar stance has been taken in the recommendations issued by an expert advisory group appointed by the country’s provinces and territories, who are ultimately responsible for health care.  The same holds true for a report issued by a special joint parliamentary committee of the country’s national parliament.  Unsurprisingly, religious doctors’ groups, but not only religious doctors’ groups, are all fired up about this and have taken, for instance, the Ontario College to court to stop this policy from being implemented.  Their argument is that conscientious objectors among its members must not be forced to provide even this level of assistance if their conscience dictates otherwise.

It is likely that the compromise reached will entail an obligation on health care professionals to transfer patients on to a willing health care professional.  That will not satisfy the objectors, because if you really hold the view that assisting a competent patient who meets the criteria stipulated by the Supreme Court is tantamount to murder, this compromise would simply translate into you passing on your patient to someone who you know would ‘murder’ that patient.  It is also not satisfactory from the patient’s perspective, because they could – depending on where they live – be forced to travel great distances in order to meet the obliging health care professional.  That could well prevent some patients from access to an assisted death.

The question arises why we should accommodate conscientiously objecting health care professionals in the first place.  It is somewhat taken as a given in much of the medical ethics literature that conscientious objectors are deserving of some kind of accommodation.  Arguments often focus on what makes a conscientious objection deserving of accommodation, and on what reasonable limits should be imposed on conscientious objectors, as opposed to the question of whether conscientious objectors deserve accommodation at all.

In our paper we develop a more radical argument for the view that health care professionals have no moral claim to conscientious objection accommodation in liberal democracies.  We put forward a number of arguments to support that conclusion.  For starters, it is impossible to evaluate the truth of the authoritative documents that motivate particular consciences.  The courts in many jurisdictions that have had to deal with conscience related cases have conceded that much.  It turns out that we also actually cannot test whether someone’s conscience claims are actually true, in the sense that that person actually has those convictions.  It might just be a convenient cop-out, and yet we readily accommodate objectors at great inconvenience to patients and significant cost to health care systems.

Why should we accommodate privately held convictions that objecting professionals would like to prioritise over their professional obligations to patients?   That demand seems unprofessional in its own right.  The promise to serve the public good and the individual patient first goes right out of the window, there and then.  These professionals joined their profession voluntarily and they knew that the scope of professional practice and their obligations to patients wouldn’t be defined by them personally, and also that changes to scope would invariably occur over time.  The content of conscientious objections is by necessity arbitrary and encompasses any number of practical refusals to provide services.  No health care system should permit its monopoly service providers that sort of freedom when it comes to the delivery of the very same services that they voluntarily contracted to deliver.  Permitting such conscience accommodations ultimately subverts the very reasons for why society has professions in the first place.


Udo Schuklenk tweets @schuklenk

Read the full paper here.

JME blog homepage

Journal of Medical Ethics

Analysis and discussion of developments in the medical ethics field. Visit site

Creative Comms logo

Latest from JME

Latest from JME

Blogs linking here

Blogs linking here