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May 16, 2011 | Posted By David Lemberg, M.S., D.C.

A bioethicist, obviously, is a person who practices bioethics. But what does this entail? On one hand, bioethics could be narrowly construed as focusing on medical ethics. A broader perspective exists, based on an expansion of bioethics to "biological ethics". Both frameworks, the narrow and the broad, are eminently valid and neither needs to exclude the other.

The need for bioethics and bioethicists is greater now than ever. Bioethicists are able to offer substantial value to communities at all levels, ranging from the level of the individual (a community of one) to the level of the planet (a global community), conceived as an intricately interwoven biosphere.

Let's get specific. What are the kinds of things that bioethicists do?

A bioethicist could be a member of a hospital staff and function as a clinical consultant. Bioethics consultations facilitate patient care in

  • Determining capacity/competency related to making an informed choice
  • End-of-life planning and decision making
  • Determinations of medical futility
  • Assisting families in making decisions regarding withdrawal of life support

A bioethicist may also function as an ombudsman for the patient and family, helping to establish ongoing clear and effective communication among all concerned parties. Depending on the context and the need, she would consult with the patient, the patient's family, medical staff, and administrative personnel.

In such a practice, the bioethicist is applying daily the principles of autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence, and justice. He is engaged in rewarding, exciting, ever-changing work with real people grappling with real, life-impacting challenges. Every day presents new opportunities to help make a meaningful difference at an individual, family, and community level.

And, much more is possible. Bioethics need not be restricted to the medical arena. Looking beyond the world of hospital practice, there are an abundance of opportunities for the bioethicist to paint with a broader brush.

For example, what are the responsibilities and accountabilities of global pharmaceutical companies? Almost 3 billion people worldwide live on less than $2 per day. These persons do not have the wherewithal to afford life-saving medications. The pharmaceutical giants are very glad to conduct clinical trials in developing nations where the costs of doing business are substantially lower than in their home countries. But these companies do not reciprocate and provide drugs at cost to indigent communities and societies. Bioethicists can help create policies focusing on distributive justice to be implemented by multinational pharmaceutical corporations.

The fields of wildlife conservation, sustainability, and renewable resources could all be enhanced by bioethics-informed policy. Human health and welfare depend not only on our interactions with each other. If bioethics intends to support the thriving of humans, it necessarily intends to support the thriving of redwood forests, coral reefs, butterflies and bumblebees, songbirds, and tuna and salmon. Natural capital and ecological services are valued at many trillions of dollars annually. Each of the four iconic bioethical principles is intimately related to maintenance and support of our natural world.

Bioethicists may work in universities, hospitals, all levels of government, policy institutes, and NGOs. Importantly, bioethicists could also work in corporations. What sort of corporation—national or multinational—would hire a bioethicist? If the corporation’s sole interest is its bottom line, i.e., profit and shareholder dividends, bioethics would most likely not fit into its strategy.

But a corporation’s board could have a different vision. Such a board could understand that the organization's long-range welfare is closely tied to the global economy, which is closely tied to the welfare and productivity of all populations, which is closely tied to ensuring the ongoing viability of environmental resources and ecological services. Such a corporation’s goals would be greatly furthered and assisted by having bioethicists on staff.

Too often, an observer of the field gets the impression that bioethics is primarily concerned with parsing ever finer notions of patient autonomy. On this view, it is IRBs rather than angels which are dancing on the head of a pin. Switching metaphors, such navel-gazing helps no one, except to provide meager support for struggling academic careers.

Bioethics is not this. Bioethics is the broad end of the funnel. Almost 50 years ago in his famous book Love and Will, the American psychologist Rollo May described the transitional nature of then-modern 1960s society. Those transitional qualities have persisted rather than resolved. The global economy is in crisis. Global climate change is apparent. Environmental resources and species diversity are at great risk. Health care, as such, is unrecognizable compared to 50 years ago, and not in a good way.

Bioethics and bioethicists can provide unique perspectives and original solutions in helping resolve the diverse challenges facing not only the United States but our global society. Bioethics and bioethicists can participate fully and become critical assets in humanity's search for meaning, self-realization, and discovery of arete.

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.

2 comments | Topics: Bioethics and Public Policy, End of Life Care, Philosophy, Religion


Richard R. Pesce, MD, MS

Richard R. Pesce, MD, MS wrote on 05/25/11 3:27 PM

The definition of bioethics as the broad end of the funnel is quite accurate. As a bioethicist and practicing physician I suggest that the bioethicist helps determine what the value is of treatment, who is receiving it and who should be receiving it. Bioethical principles help define value to the patient and should identify safeguards that defend patient value. Value is viewed as being equal to (clinical outcomes x patient experience)/costs for the patient view vs. value = clinical outcomes/costs from the practioner-institutional side. This consideration can be expanded to most of the areas mentioned by Dr. Lemberg. The key is to remember from what viewpoint value is being looked at. In the clinical arena it would be expected to see that the patient expectation of value and institutional-practioner expectation of value would converge. If not there may be an ethical gap in the clinical arean that would need to be clarified and addressed as to causative issues. Value consideration requires understanding what those values are that are brought to the table by each party. This is where the bioethicist can function well.

David wrote on 07/11/11 7:35 PM

I believe bringing concepts of value to the physician-patient interaction would enhance value for all parties. It is possible that a patient whose experience is less than optimal would derive less benefit from the associated medical intervention. Reduced patient value would likely lead over time to increased costs and further reductions in value for all parties.

Dr. Pesce's highlighting of value considerations helps provide a firm foundation for the practice of bioethics.

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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.