When you are in trouble, the hospital’s bioethics committee can help.


Every hospital has a bioethics committee. It usually includes doctors, nurses, social workers, chaplains, community members and other people interested in medical ethics. It is supposed to help patients and families as well as healthcare professionals with difficult situations. When a conflict occurs and people can’t figure out what the right thing to do is, the bioethics committee should be able to help.

In most hospitals, you just call the hospital operator and ask to speak with someone from the bioethics committee. They will page the person on call and the bioethics committee member should call you back within two hours. Then you can tell them what the problem is and what kind of help you need. If that doesn’t work, call the Medical Staff Office at the hospital and ask to speak to the Chair of the Bioethics Committee.

A colleague of mine said she recently called because her family was at war regarding what to do for their grandfather. When she called for help, she was told that only doctors could call for these services. This is not true. Do not let the operator or other medical professional talk you out of contacting the ethics team.

What kinds of things can be taken to an ethics committee? Here are just a few examples.
If you are the patient and the doctor is not respecting your wishes, ask for help.
If you are the patient or family and you are having problems communicating with a difficult doctor and need help.
If you are the family member and your family is arguing about who should be in charge of making the decisions for your loved one.
If the doctor won’t return your calls or won’t talk to you and you need help.
If you are part of the healthcare team and you see something unethical or wrong.
If you are a person on the healthcare team and you can see that a conflict is starting and you think the people involved need help.
If you are the doctor and you think the family is prolonging the patient’s dying or suffering for personal gain, ask for bioethics help.
If you are the doctor and the patient or family is demanding treatments that are not medically appropriate.
If you are the doctor and you are having problems communicating with a difficult patient or family.

It is always better to ask for help sooner than later. Problems are more easily solved when they are dealt with right away.

I have to tell you the truth about one thing. Most hospitals have good bioethics committees but not every hospital has a well trained committee. If the committee isn’t able to help you enough, I would suggest working with the social worker assigned to the patient to find a better solution. If that doesn’t work, and the problem is with the doctor, fire that doctor and get a different doctor. Try not to make enemies along the way as you still need good care for your loved one. The healthcare team is responsible for the well being of the patient and you need to treat them respectfully as you ask for your concerns to be addressed. You may want to read my section on the KIND Method to get other ideas about problem solving in the healthcare setting.

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