• A
  • |
  • A
  • Text size

Opinion 9.115 - Ethics Consultations

Ethics consultations may be called to clarify ethical issues without reference to a particular case, facilitate discussion of an ethical dilemma in a particular case, or resolve an ethical dispute. The consultation mechanism may be through an ethics committee, a subset of the committee, individual consultants, or consultation teams. The following guidelines are offered with respect to these services:

(1) All hospitals and other health care institutions should provide access to ethics consultation services. Health care facilities without ethics committees or consultation services should develop flexible, efficient mechanisms of ethics review that divide the burden of committee functioning among collaborating health care facilities.

(2) Institutions offering ethics consultation services must appreciate the complexity of the task, recognizing the potential for harm as well as benefit, and act responsibly. This includes true institutional support for the service.

(3) Ethics consultation services require a serious investment of time and effort by the individuals involved. Members should include either individuals with extensive formal training and experience in clinical ethics or individuals who have made a substantial commitment over several years to gain sufficient knowledge, skills, and understanding of the complexity of clinical ethics. A wide variety of background training is preferable, including such fields as philosophy, religion, medicine, and law.

(4) Explicit structural standards should be developed and consistently followed. These should include developing a clear description of the consultation service’s role and determining which types of cases will be addressed, how the cases will be referred to the service, whether the service will provide recommendations or simply function as a forum for discussion, and whether recommendations are binding or advisory.

(5) Explicit procedural standards should be developed and consistently followed. These should include establishing who must be involved in the consultation process and how notification, informed consent, confidentiality and case write-ups will be handled.

(6) In general, patient and staff informed consent may be presumed for ethics consultation. However, patients and families should be given the opportunity, not to participate in discussions either formally, through the institutional process, or informally.

(7) In those cases where the patient or family has chosen not to participate in the consultation process, the final recommendations of the consultant(s) should be tempered.

(8) In general, ethics consultation services, like social services, should be financed by the institution.

(9) A consultation service should be careful not to take on more than it can handle, ie, the complexity of the role should correspond to the level of sophistication of the service and the resources it has available. As a result, some services may offer only information and education, others a forum for discussion but not advice, others might serve a mediation role, and some might handle even administrative or organizational ethics issues. (IV, V)

Issued June 1998 based on the report "Ethics Consultation," adopted December 1997.