Author Archives: gdcamp

Virtues Ethics in Clinical Practice

In this session, we will be focusing on the Ethical Framework of VIRTUES (see Ethics Worksheet). We will investigate one of the primary obligations of clinicians: respect for patient autonomy, and consider what this might mean in more complex clinical cases.

(1) WATCH THIS VIDEO INTRO OF VIRTUE ETHICS

The video reviews the following concepts:

  1. Virtue
  2. Value
  3. Empathy
  4. Trust and Trustworthiness

**Keep in mind that this session will focus on cases that are meant to draw out population level biases, discrimination and other ethical concerns in particular clinical interactions. We will return to addressing societal, systematic, and broader justice issues in other sessions (see Justice in Healthcare). Likewise, we will come back to system level methods of advocacy (including advocacy for clinicians with underrepresented minority identities) in other sessions. Here, our intention is to start thinking creatively about how to be in relationship with particular patients in complex contexts.**

(2) READ:  Walking a mile in their patients’ shoes:empathy and othering in medical students’ education.

Goal:  See a physician’s perspective on what empathy means and how it matters in the clinical setting. 

ContextPhysicians and patients alike will agree that empathy is integral to patient care. But it is not as easy as we might think. Empathy is not unlike other clinical skills and practices. Take learning to listen to a heart. We begin with simple instructions about how to use a stethoscope and then slowly build more precise attunement to any irregularities in heartbeat. In empathy, we begin with simple questions like “how do you feel today?”, but experience, practice, and knowledge will create greater attunement to the feelings of others. This article by Dr. Shapiro is just one step in the direction of building the knowledge necessary to becoming an excellently empathically attuned physician. 

(3) WATCH: Examined Life – Judith Butler & Sunaura Taylor

Goal: Consider the different language we use and how it might be interpreted differently from another’s perspective, this is an important skill to hone in developing one’s empathy

Context: The conversation in this video is an excellent example of what it means to be curious, humble, trustworthy and empathic in conversation with others and across similarities and differences. Sunaura Taylor is an artist and writer, she articulates the social model of disability and demonstrates its presence in her life excellently. Taylor and Butler call on us to think about how what our bodies can do in the world depends on what the world allows physically and through social norms. Most importantly, Taylor and Butler show us how important it is to know about the experiences of others by talking with them and privileging their perspective by always remaining curious and open.  

 

SHIFTING GEARS A LITTLE… We’re going to look at the intersection of virtue and the complicated context of IV drug use and addiction. This reading will be directly relevant to an in-class exercise in which students will be expected to participate in a mock family meeting.

(4) READ this publication by Dr. Kirkpatrick (Cardiologist and Ethics Consultant at UWMC): 

“Infective Endocarditis in the Intravenous Drug User” in AMA Journal of Ethics. 2010;12(10):778-781.

Goal: Categorize some of the central ethics conflicts and uncertainties in cases where IV drug use complicates the efficacy of medical interventions. This will be key to a successful fishbowl family meeting exercise.

Context: Dr. Kirkpatrick uses a case and casuistic comparisons to critically reflect on the meaning of the term ‘futility’ in contexts where a patient’s addiction to IV drugs might be taken as a reason against pursuing a particular medical intervention.

(5) OPTIONAL PREP FOR MOCK FAMILY MEETING: in light of what you’ve read in Dr. Kirkpatrick’s article, review the following case…

Moira is 28yrs old with two children (7 and 9yrs old). She has a history of injection opioid and meth use, and is admitted for fever and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteremia. Moira has been admitted several times over the past 6 years for S. aureus endocarditis, had a mitral valve repair for an anterior leaflet perforation 5 years ago, and then a bioprosthetic valve replacement 2 years ago. Although she has tried rehabilitation programs a number of times in the past, she relapsed 2 months ago and continues to inject heroin. Each time she’s been admitted, staff have been hopeful seeing her recover, but also frustrated by each new admission. When an echocardiogram is done during this current admission, she is found to have a large vegetation on her bioprosthetic mitral valve, with a small perivalvular abscess.[1] She is currently receiving antibiotics and being considered for a valve replacement. Her surgeon believes that a mechanical valve would be the best option for long-term cardiac function, but is concerned that she won’t adhere to anticoagulation therapy and could reinfect the valve, given her ongoing injection drug use.  

Moira alternates between passive acceptance of her care and anger at staff. She will sometimes knock food off her tray, throw her bedpan, or verbally lash out at medical staff (e.g. “just leave me alone!” or “don’t pretend you care!”). Because of this, staff members have warned each other to take caution when entering her room. Moira has a “behavior contract” and often behaves more passively when her father (Rick) is in the room. So, the medical team typically waits until the father is present to conference with the patient. Moira is often alone in her room as her father is very busy with his job and taking care of Moira’s two children. 

The surgical team disagrees about whether or not to offer the valve surgery to Moira. While one of her nurses doesn’t understand why it has not yet been offered, another feels burnt out from caring for Moira over several admissions and is frustrated by Moira’s lack of participation in her care. Similarly, while the attending surgeon is reluctant to do another valve replacement knowing it will not fix Moira’s underlying disease (her addiction), the resident believes that she is a sufficiently good candidate medically and it will likely allow her more time (months to years) with her family. 

Moira and her family are experiencing homelessness. She had been staying in a shelter with her children prior to the current admission. While the children’s father is not present, Moira’s father Rick is very involved in her care and is in the process of adopting the two children. 

Should Moira be offered a third heart surgery? 

Family Meeting: The care team, Moira and her dad will meet in a family meeting to explore Moira’s goals, and the previous challenges in her care, in order to inform future care decisions, including the possibility of a future valve replacement.  

[1] These findings mean that she has endocarditis again and the perivalvular abscess is an indication for surgery. 


For further investigation on addiction, see…

  • Dr. Maté’s website: https://drgabormate.com/.
  • This short article describing the power of narrative to see different viewpoints on the fentanyl poisoning crisis: Living with Pain and Opioid Addiction: Bioethics Narratives 
  • If you’re feeling eager for more on empathy… explore this article on How to Teach Doctors Empathy which talks about the growing emphasis on empathy training for health care professionals and describes a few such trainings across the country.
  • Also, we highly recommend watching this TED Talk on addiction and social connection: Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong | Johann Hari

 

Key Ethics Term: Trust & Trustworthiness

Trust and the virtue of trustworthiness are integral to the moral life. At a very basic level, society requires trust to function (e.g. what if you couldn’t trust your bank to hold your money?, or e.g. what if you couldn’t trust that teachers were doing their best to provide accurate information?, or e.g. what if you couldn’t trust your doctors to keep their interactions with you confidential?). In order to survive and flourish with those around us, we must be able to trust each other.

It is important to note that trust also makes us vulnerable. To trust in another is to make oneself vulnerable to that person or system. This point is a key feature of patient care. Physicians depend on patient’s to trust them in their care for them to be successful. Likewise, patients depend on physicians not to abuse their trust. When physicians and patients are able to engage in trusting relationships and be trustworthy, we have a better chance of enhancing the wellbeing of the patient, the physician, and the relationship.

Relations of trust are also vulnerable to social norms and history. Norms that categorize a particular population as not trustworthy can affect patient care and pose significant challenges to clinician-patient relationships. For instance, it is common for clinicians to distrust the demands of patients with Sickle Cell Disease, particularly by doubting the validity of their requests for stronger pain medications in a crisis. This mistrust is tied up in social perception of opioids as well as the visible identity of being black (as many sickle cell patients are). So, when building trust and trustworthiness in relations with patients, we must acknowledge how social norms and history can affect those efforts.


Key Ethics Term: Treatment as Not Medically Feasible or Beneficent (“Medically Futile”)

“Medical futility” refers to interventions that are unlikely to produce any significant benefit for the patient.” (Jecker, Ethics in Medicine Website, UWSOM)

But the meaning of ‘benefit’ can be difficult to determine in a particular case. For some patients, for instance, quantity of life will matter more than quality of life. There will be instances when clinicians may feel a treatment does not offer benefit even if it does extend life in the short term, while the patient may feel that any extension in quantity (even if only days or hours) is a benefit. Likewise, there may be times when clinicians disagree among themselves as to whether a treatment is medically feasible or beneficent. Herein lies the conflict.

The term ‘medical futility’ is complicated by the normative valence of ‘futile’, which can have negative connotations and consequences for patients and families. For this reason, many prefer the terminology ‘not medically feasible or beneficent’ to ‘medically futile’.


Key Ethics Term: Surrogate Decision Making

When patients are lacking in decisional capacity, we depend on others to make decisions for them. This surrogate decision maker may be formally appointed by the patient (e.g. through durable power of attorney or DPOA), may be a legal next of kin (LNOK) as defined by the state, or (in absence of the former options) a guardian appointed by the state.

Surrogate decision makers are expected to make decisions for the patient using a (1) substituted judgment standard (i.e. deciding as the patient would under the circumstances, e.g. did the patient ever talk about not wanting to be on a ventilator?) or (2) best interest standard (i.e. deciding according to what seems to be in the best interests of the patient based on what we know about the patient, e.g. does an intervention provide reasonable benefit and minimal risk based on the patient’s circumstances?).


Key Ethics Term: Decision Making Capacity

Decisional capacity is decision specific (e.g. one might be able to choose what one wants for lunch but not whether or not a surgical interventions is appropriate) and it can wax/wane over time (e.g. directly following TBI I may not have decisional capacity, but may regain it over time).

Decisional capacity depends on the following (Applebaum 2007):

  1. ability to communicate a choice
  2. ability to understand the relevant information
  3. ability to appreciate consequences
  4. ability to reason about treatment choices.

Decisional capacity also comes in degrees and requires support. A number of things can affect one’s ability to demonstrate capacity (e.g. language barriers) or be capable (e.g. severe cognitive impairments or disabilities). But many patients with cognitive impairments or who face disabling conditions that affect decisional capacity in the above regards can be capable with sufficient support. This is often called supported decision making and is growing formal legal support/actualization across the country.


Key Ethics Term: Respectfulness

Respectfulness is a kind of virtue, which can be broadly understood as a trait of character in which one recognizes, assumes, or even promotes the moral worth of others. A respectful person consistently and reliably treats others as “ends in themselves” (to use Kant’s language) or valuable in their own right. This can come in a number of different forms. While we commonly think of respect in bioethics in relation to respect for autonomy, we can also be respectful of person’s beliefs, emotions, relationships, etc. Thus, while ‘respect for autonomy’ is an integral principle in bioethics, we must also think more broadly about how to be respectful in the clinical setting.


Key Ethics Term: Empathy

Empathy is about knowing or understanding how another person feels. Unlike sympathy (feeling badly for another), or emotional sharing (sharing in an emotion with another), they key is that we come to some understanding of how another person feels in their own shoes (i.e. NOT how you would feel in another person’s shoes aka “perspective taking”).

Empathy is controversial. Some argue it isn’t possible or that it requires too much of us (e.g. is overburdensome in the clinical context). Others worry about its tendency to rely on stereotypes (e.g. greater accuracy with ‘in-groups’) or the potential for false/paternalistic empathy (e.g. a failure to ask another but just assume to know how they feel). However, the medical profession also relies on empathy for two important reasons:

  1. When appropriately sensitive and responsive, it can lead to knowledge about how a patient feels that can be critical to medical care.
  2. When appropriately sensitive and responsive, empathic engagement, on its own, manifests respect for the patient and can be critical to building a trusting relationship.

Key Ethics Term: Value

The term ‘value’ distinguishes descriptive statements/beliefs (e.g. the world is spherical) from normative statements (e.g. clinicians ought/should be compassionate). In the latter case we are making evaluative judgments or calling something good/bad.

Sometimes we take value to be intrinsic (e.g. we might say happiness is valuable in itself, not for some other goal), and sometimes we take value to be extrinsic (e.g. when we say x job is good because it pays well, or e.g. empathy is good because it helps patients heal more quickly).

We can also say that value is subjective or objective. For instance, wealth may be a subjective value that one person holds but not another (the value is relative to the subject/person). Whereas, we might say that compassion is objectively valuable because we all agree to its value, or because there is evidence that it makes persons and communities live well/ flourish, or because it is dictated by religious text, etc. (though some might disagree about whether compassion is an objective value, or whether anything can have objective value).


Key Ethics Term: Virtue

Virtue Ethics can be traced back to Mencius and Confucius, as well as Plato and Aristotle. In this course, we will be primarily using an Aristotelian framework for understanding virtue. The virtues are defined as excellent traits of character. Though there is disagreement over what it means for a trait of character to be excellent, most agree that it is the sort of trait that is fundamental to flourishing or living well (what Aristotle calls eudaemonia). For instance, courage, compassion/sympathy, truthfulness, trustworthiness, humility, empathy, respectfulness, these are all traits that are taken to be critical to flourishing as individuals and as a society.

The key for Aristotle is that our traits of character depend on excellent habitualization (we learn from others and practice habits with others). So, virtues are significantly dependent on social support. This can mean that being trustworthy is something that comes easily to you in part because you were raised to be trustworthy, but it also means choosing to be trustworthy because it is an excellent trait as you develop greater capacity to make choices. Some contemporary interpretations of Aristotle add that virtue can be dependent on sociality in another sense, virtue requires normative structures and systems that encourage and support it. For instance, when hospitals place higher value on numbers of patients than time with patients, it could be at the cost of empathy. Likewise, oppressive -isms (racism, chauvinism, ablism, etc.) can hamper virtue (e.g. being respectful of someone when social norms tell us that a feature of their identity is not worthy of equal respect, or e.g. being trustworthy when no one trusts me).

Some key virtues in the medical profession include (but are not limited to): empathy, sympathy, compassion, beneficence, respectfulness, justice, curiosity, humility, courageousness, trustworthiness, truthfulness, etc.


Key Ethics Term: Expressivist Objection

Some object to prenatal diagnosis on the basis that it ‘expresses’ a discriminatory attitude towards those with (dis)ability. Namely, the act of screening for genetic information that might demonstrate risk for certain forms of (dis)ability (e.g. developmental (dis)ability associated with Down Syndrome) so that one might then choose to terminate the pregnancy endorses normative assumptions that treat those with (dis)ability negatively or as unequal in moral worth.

It is important in weighing this objection against other considerations to consider the perspective of those who have a screened for or similar genetic trait. Likewise, you might consider how you would feel if any genetic trait that you have were screened for regularly and pregnancies were regularly terminated because of it.


For further reading…

  • Boardman, FK. (2014). The expressionist objection to prenatal testing: the experiences of families living with genetic disease. Social Science & Med, 107:18-25.

  • Edwards SD. (2004). Disability, identity and the “expressivist objection”, J Med Ethics, 30(4):418.

  • Kittay, E. and Carlson, L. (2010) Cognitive Disability and its Challenge to Moral Philosophy, Wiley-Blackwell: Oxford.