Many health care facilities have in-house or on-call trained ethicists to assist health care practitioners, caregivers and patients with difficult issues arising in medical care, and some facilities have formally constituted institutional ethics committees. In the hospital setting, this ethics consultation or review process dates back to at least 1992 with the formulation of accreditation requirements that mandated that hospitals establish a “mechanism” to consider clinical ethics issues.
Ethics has been described as beginning where the law ends. The moral conscience is a precursor to the development of legal rules for social order. Ethics and law thus share the goal of creating and maintaining social good and have a symbiotic relationship as expressed in this quote:
[C]onscience is the guardian in the individual of the rules which the community has evolved for its own preservation. William Somerset Maugham
The role of lawyers and risk managers are closely linked in many health care facilities. Indeed, in some hospitals, the administrator with the title of Risk Manager is an attorney with a clinical background. There are, however, important distinctions between law and risk management. Risk management is guided by legal parameters but has a broader institution-specific mission to reduce liability risks. It is not uncommon for a hospital policy to go beyond the minimum requirements set by a legal standard. When legal and risk management issues arise in the delivery of health care, ethics issues may also exist. Similarly, an issue originally identified as falling within the clinical ethics domain may also raise legal and risk management concerns.
To better understand the significant overlap among these disciplines in the health care setting, consider the sources of authority and expression for each.
Ethical norms may be derived from:
Note: If a health care facility is also a religious facility, it may adhere to religious tenets. In general, however, clinical ethics is predominantly a secular professional analytic approach to clinical issues and choices.
Law may be derived from:
Risk Management may be derived from law, professional standards and individual institution’s mission and public relations strategies and is expressed through institutional policies and practices.