Thursday, December 29, 2011

Hospital Ethics Committees

Hospital Ethics Committees, the most important organizational structure in health care ethics, are a decidedly mixed bag, as measured by skill, reputation, and utilization of the consultation process. Kevin O’Reilly’s excellent article in the current American Medical Association News provides a very full update.

Almost all hospitals with more than 200 beds offer ethics consultation. But the median use is approximately 3 consults per 100 beds per year. Anyone who has worked in a hospital and seen the conundrums that emerge so regularly knows that 3 per year is very low.

O’Reilly cites multiple articles and interviews for concluding that (a) consultants are often under prepared for their role, (b) physician attitudes towards the consultation process are often negative, and (c) evidence for the effectiveness of the consultation process is weak. Howard Brody, director of the University of Texas Medical Branch Institute for Medical Humanities, commented that "if ethics committees were a drug, they would not be approved."

For two reasons, however, I expect that in the next 5 – 10 years we will see an upturn for ethics committees and the consultation process.

First, systematic research on the consultation process, combined with quality improvement interventions, will lead to enhanced consultation techniques and outcome monitoring. The Veterans Affairs IntegratedEthics program, initiated in 2007, is an example of the kind of systematic development that is needed.

Second, the change of language in the 2004 Federal Sentencing Guidelines for Organizations from “compliance” to “compliance and ethics” combined with the statement that organizations should “promote an organizational culture that encourages ethical conduct and a commitment to compliance with the law” creates a strong push for strengthening ethics activities.

Hospital ethics committees are at the end of their entrepreneurial phase. They are up and running and widely disseminated. The phase we are entering now is managerial. The primary challenge is getting more mileage from the time, energy, and (limited) dollars that have been invested in launching them.

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