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The Clinical Ethics Committee by Linda Powell

21 March 2022

Ever had a dilemma about the best course of action for treatment at a hospital?  It’s surprisingly common.  Or maybe not so surprising when you think of all the possible treatments and interventions that could be given, the variations in views and values of clinicians and those of patients and their families.

I’m talking about ethical choices here, not the pros and cons of different clinical interventions, and not worries about ‘was the agreed treatment administered correctly’.  There are other places to take these issues.

In today’s health care settings, there can be a lot of different ideas about treatment.  This is exacerbated by the fact that every patient and their family may have different views about what’s best and what’s right, different values and a different set of life experiences and beliefs.  This all makes for difficult decision making when there are choices about what to do next.

Canberra Health Services is aware that such dilemmas arise from time to time and has established the Clinical Ethics Committee (CEC) to help clinical staff, patients and/or their families, find a way forward when confronted by a difficult ethical decision.

The committee is made up of medical practitioners, nursing staff, a lawyer, a bioethicist, a social worker, pastoral care staff and consumer representatives. This diverse group offers many viewpoints and life experiences to draw upon, and can help health professionals, patients and relatives make better informed decisions.  The recommendations of the committee are not binding, but many people find them helpful in identifying a way forward in a difficult situation, and working through the issues involved.

This committee meets on an as-needs basis, whenever someone refers an ethical problem to it.  The CEC helps by providing a safe environment for health care professionals or patients to work through the difficult ethical issues that can arise in hospitals.  It does this by talking through the problem, helping identify options and decision points, and sharing its considerable expertise in managing similar issues in the past.  After talking it through with the person referring the issue, the committee will provide advice on what it believes is the best course of action from an ethical perspective.

Some of the kinds of ethical issues that arise include:

  • Informed consent and competence to make decisions
  • Organ and tissue donation
  • Termination of pregnancy
  • Care of vulnerable patients
  • Prioritising the use of therapeutic medical products with limited availability
  • Treatment where there are differences of opinion about what to do
  • Withdrawal or end of treatment

If you have a matter that you would like the committee to consider, please contact the CEC Secretariat via email at [email protected].

Please remember the committee provides advice on ethical matters. It is not a place for raising complaints or concerns about the quality or competence of treatment.  These types of problems are best referred to the Consumer Feedback team on (02) 5124 5932 or email [email protected].

Linda Powell (HCCA consumer representative)

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