June 11, 2012 | Posted By Bruce D. White, DO, JD

Is helping the lay public better understand how to interpret health information accurately – in the face of widely disseminated misinformation – one of the pressing challenges for today’s bioethicists?

The June 6, 2012 New York Times carried an article that may illustrate this point perfectly: “Abortion Qualms on Morning-After Pill May Be Unfounded.” The article highlights how politics-driven misinformation is so difficult to counter or contradict, even with sound medical and scientific data. Apparently, for some politicians just saying that emergency contraceptives are “abortive pills” is enough to make it so. Of course, there are other recent examples of this phenomenon too, such as Michele Bachmann claiming that HPV vaccine might cause “mental retardation.”

Regardless, if nothing else, clinical ethics is all about informed consent. Informed consent – in a nutshell – is met when the physician shares with the patient information about the working diagnosis, the available intervention options and prognoses, the benefits and burdens of each option (including the possibility of no intervention at all) and the likely outcomes, and the physician and patient – using a shared-decision making model – agree on an immediate course or plan to implement.

How to keep physicians and patients better informed has to be one of the important tasks for those engaged in bedside ethics consultation. But how to overcome myths and deliberate misinformation – that often flies in the face of medical and scientific research – may prove more challenging that providing accurate information to patients and families as part of any informed consent process.

Maybe this is not possible or a challenge that clinical ethicists and the healthcare team cannot overcome? Maybe not. One may recall the 1996 Diem-Lantos-Tusky article titled “Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation on Television – Miracles and Misinformation” to more fully understand the test. Bioethicists over the years have continued to question the validity of information provided the lay public (who are the same patients encountered at the bedside and in the clinic). Clearly this will not change, even though at times it may appear that we and healthcare providers have not been very successful. Perhaps another question is whether clinical ethics education programs should include formal educational opportunities for clinical ethicists- or bioethicists-in training to help better prepare them for such a role?

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers graduate online masters in bioethics programs. For more information on the AMBI master of bioethics online program, please visit the AMBI site.

1 comments | Topics: Bioethics in the Media , Drug Safety , Education , Patient Autonomy , Politics


Wayne Shelton

Wayne Shelton wrote on 06/11/12 1:14 PM

Also, the media has an obligation to sort out and clarify scientific and health care information, as they do all other types of information, including political matters, instead of framing issues in black and white terms, so opposing talking heads can yell at each other on news shows in hopes of attracting partisan viewers. We need more people, as consumers of information, to be seekers of scientifically sound information, rather than seekers of information that confirms what they think they already know. The media should nurture this goal (and no doubt be charged as having a liberal bias), define their role and what their goals are in presenting information to the public, and do so with advice from state of the art scientific expertise.

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BIOETHICS TODAY is the blog of the Alden March Bioethics Institute, presenting topical and timely commentary on issues, trends, and breaking news in the broad arena of bioethics. BIOETHICS TODAY presents interviews, opinion pieces, and ongoing articles on health care policy, end-of-life decision making, emerging issues in genetics and genomics, procreative liberty and reproductive health, ethics in clinical trials, medicine and the media, distributive justice and health care delivery in developing nations, and the intersection of environmental conservation and bioethics.