Category Archives: Ethics

Using ethical frameworks and reasoning to justify a course of action in response to ethical conflict or uncertainty in medical practice.

Key Ethics Concept: Communitarianism

The communitarian approach on the values of the community over and above the values of individuals within that community. This approach looks to the particular context, community beliefs, and societal relations to formulate standards of justice and responsibility.

This approach can significantly affect how we make and respect decisions in clinical contexts. Some medical communities may decide not to offer particular therapies to individuals based on the needs of the community. Likewise, some families may decide not to accept particular interventions in light of their community’s resources and values. See the case of Baby Aaron below for a good example of a communitarian ethos.


Ethical Values, Obligations and Virtues in Communities

REVIEW these key ethics terms:

WATCH this video of Carol Gilligan on Moral Development and Care Ethics:

While watching, CONSIDER …

  • What is different about the approach that Gilligan is suggesting (i.e. a relational or Care Ethics based approach) from what you typically think of in terms of your ethical obligations as physicians.

READ Baby Aaron and the Elders by Ellen Wright Clayton and Eric Kodish
.

While reading CONSIDER:

  • How is a communitarian approach being employed by Aaron’s family?
  • How could a communitarian approach guide the response of the medical provider?
  • What would be the primary goal(s) in a Care Ethics based approach to this case? Be specific.
  • How might a Care Ethics approach guide your particular response to baby Aaron’s family? What would it avoid?

Key Ethics Concept: Care Ethics

Care ethics began as a feminist perspective on ethics. Some of its founders (e.g. Carol Gilligan, Nel Noddings and Virginia Held) stressed that traditional ethics neglected roles and values that were stereotypically attributed to women, such as care and empathy.

Care ethics begins from a different metaphysical stance on identity. It conceptualizes humans as fundamentally relational, interdependent, and emotional.

The ethical approach starts from this position of relationality and focuses on the value of creating and sustaining caring relations. Care ethicists sometimes disagree about what this means, but overall the stance is different from other theories insofar as it places our relationships with others as the primary focus of ethical analysis. So, rather than ask ourselves “what are my ethical obligations?” or “what are my ethical duties and rights?”, we instead ask “how can I cultivate caring relationships?”.

In the clinical setting, this approach can change our actions insofar as it asks us to think about our particular relationships first. Think about the case of a “difficult clinician-patient encounter”. Care ethics would ask us to think about how to repair the relationship first and then move towards figuring out the best treatment options. Likewise, in the case of a non-adherent patient, care ethics would ask us to think about what relationships are obstructing adherence and how they might be appropriately changed to best instantiate care.

 


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. We will also explore another primary obligation of clinicians: the obligation to build trusting relationships with patients. This second obligation is often required for fulfilling the first, and these cases help us to see why.

(1) WATCH THIS VIDEO:

Insert mediasite recording of lecture here…

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: consider the role of empathy in medical student education while reading Walking a mile in their patients’ shoes:empathy and othering in medical students’ education. The article discusses the barriers for medical education to promote empathy and offers up a paradigm that may help trainees deal with these barriers and possible ideas of how they could be surmounted.

Physicians 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

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.

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.

As you read HIGHLIGHT the central ethics rules/obligations that Dr. Kirkpatrick applies in his discussion.

(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 surprised by her ability to 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 have been consistently homeless or houseless. 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.

 


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

 

Ethics of Brain Death

Objectives

1. Articulate the ethical issues that arise in the determination of brain death
2. Identify and discuss physicians’ ethical and professional duties when, due to religious, cultural or other reasons, a patient’s family does not recognize brain death and insists on continued medical intervention after declaration of brain death
3. Identify and discuss physicians’ ethical and professional responsibilities when, due to religious, cultural or other reasons, medical providers or medical institutions insist on continued medical intervention after declaration of brain death

Review these Key Terms:

Read:

These two articles discuss the ethics terms above in greater detail and help us to apply them in the case of brain death. As you read these articles, consider how our cultural norms and ascriptions might affect our ethical judgments and reasoning. Note the discrepancy between our use of ‘cultural’ ascriptions to patients and to the medical profession.

 

Review the 4-Box Method and Complete the blank worksheet for each of the below cases…

CASE 1:  J

16-year-old girl with a history of depression and ADHD who presents with coma. She was diagnosed with depression when she was 13 and had never attempted suicide before. Her parents are divorced and barely on speaking terms. She was at her mother’s place, talked to her father on the phone, who sent her grandparents to get her from her mother’s place. She had gotten into an argument with her mother about playing a video game. She was then found hung with a taekwondo belt around her neck tied to the bedpost. CPR was initiated by the mother. EMS found her to be in PEA arrest. She was given epinephrine. Circulation returned, but she was thereafter non-responsive. She was intubated and transferred to the ICU for care.

Over the next two days, she does not respond to painful stimuli or voice; does not grimace to pain; has no gag reflex; has no limb movements to pain; pupils are fixed and dilated; no spontaneous respirations; no volitional activity.

After she loses all brainstem reflexes, an apnea test is performed.  It confirms the absence of a respiratory drive when the patient is allowed to accumulate COwithout artificial ventilation.  A second brain death examination is needed per institutional policy, and is performed 24 hours later, confirming whole brain death.

The patient’s physicians in the ICU, palliative care, and neurology teams have been preparing the mother and father and their families for this possibility.

The neurologist explains that she has died and asks if they would like to have time with her before the ventilator is removed.  Her dad replies, “She’s warm. Her heart is beating. She’s breathing.  She’s not dead. We want a second opinion.  There must be more tests you can do.  She’s in there somewhere.  As long as she’s breathing, her soul has not left her body.”

While some religious traditions do not recognize brain death, her family simply genuinely believes she is not dead.  In their view, withdrawing the ventilator would cause her death, so when the time comes to extubate, they throw themselves over her body and say they will not let anyone ‘stop any of the machines’.

*Pulseless electrical activity or PEA refers to a clinical diagnosis of cardiac arrest in which a heart rhythm is observed on the electrocardiogram that should be producing a pulse, but is not.

Consider:

  • What might hamper the clinician-patient/family relationships in this case?
  • How ought healthcare providers respond to this situation? What steps should they take and why (use the concepts of relational autonomy, beneficence/non-maleficence, virtue, etc. to guide you)?

 

CASE 2: Marlise Munoz:

“Marlise Muñoz was 33 years old and the mother of a 15-month-old when she collapsed on November 26, 2013, from what was later determined to be a massive pulmonary embolism. Initially described as apneic but alive, she was brought to the county hospital where her family was soon told that she was brain dead. Ms. Muñoz and her husband, both emergency medical technicians (EMTs), had discussed their feelings about such situations. So Erik Muñoz felt confident in asserting that his wife would not want continued support. Her other family members agreed, and they requested withdrawal of ventilation and other measures sustaining her body’s function.

In most circumstances, this tragic case would have ended there, but Marlise was 14 weeks pregnant and lived in Fort Worth, Texas. Texas law states that a “person may not withhold cardiopulmonary resuscitation or certain other life-sustaining treatment designated . . . under this subchapter (the Texas advance directive law) . . . from a person known . . . to be pregnant.”1 The hospital caring for Ms. Muñoz interpreted this exception as compelling them to provide continued support and declined the family’s request to end such interventions. The attorney representing the hospital indicated that the law was meant to “protect the unborn child against the wishes of a decision maker who would terminate the child’s life along with the mother’s.” After weeks of discussion and media attention with the hospital remaining intransigent, Mr. Muñoz sued in state court to have his wife’s and family’s wishes respected.”

From: Ecker, J. Death in Pregnancy—An American Tragedy, NEJM, 2014, http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp1400969#t=article.

FIND A MORE ON THE CASE HERE: http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2014/01/28/267759687/the-strange-case-of-marlise-munoz-and-john-peter-smith-hospital

Consider:

  • What might hamper the clinician-patient/family relationships in this case?
  • How ought healthcare providers respond to this situation? What steps should they take and why (use the concepts of relational autonomy, beneficence/non-maleficence, virtue, etc. to guide you)?

 

 

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.