Friday, December 11, 2015

The Four "As" of Ethics

Here's a mnemonic I've found useful for thinking about the actions health organizations need to take to walk the talk of their values:

  1. Analysis ("what is the right thing to do?") This is the activity most familiar to ethics committees and classes in ethics. When is it right to pull the plug? At what age should children make their own health care decisions? When the term "ethicist" is used it's generally associated with the analytic activity.
  2. Advocacy ("let's do the right thing!") This is the charismatic leadership function. When  leaders are seen as admirable exemplars of the organization's values, bureaucratic position and natural authority coincide. This is a uniquely powerful configuration. But every group has members who others respect and want to emulate. Wise leaders look to these widely admired member of the group as strong influences on the organization's ethical culture.
  3. Administration ("we need to create structures that make it easier to do the right thing.") Ethical behavior is strongly influenced by internal ego ideals, but it's also shaped by external factors like prompts in an electronic record that help us conduct and record advance care planning and nudge us when it hasn't been done.
  4. Accountability ("how well are we living our ideals? how can we improve?") Many years ago, a primary care colleague had his assistant ask every patient after their appointment - "did Dr. X do what you needed him to do today?" If the answer was "no," the assistant was trained to intervene, either directly or by calling in to the office. Now we have well developed systems like Press Ganey to assist with accountability at the population level, but the basic function is the one Dr. X implemented on his own.
Ethically admirable health organizations need to cultivate all four of the "As". 

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