A Basic Decision-Making Approach to Common Ethical Issues in Consultation-Liaison Psychiatry
Ethical dilemmas are found throughout the daily work of C-L psychiatrists. Unfortunately, most psychiatrists have no more training in ethics than their nonpsychiatric colleagues. Psychiatric consults spurred by ethical dilemmas can provoke anxiety in psychiatrists and leave anxious colleagues without the clear recommendations they seek. C-L psychiatrists, and probably all psychiatrists, need more training in clinical ethics. C-L psychiatrists do not need to become clinical ethicists, but competence in handling the ethical issues most commonly seen in C-L work is needed. The 2008 ABPN guidelines for specialists in psychosomatic medicine mention specific ethics topics important in C-L work, and ways of attaining competence in these areas have been discussed in the C-L literature. The four cases discussed here illustrate the high level of complexity often seen in situations in which ethical dilemmas arise in C-L psychiatry. Given the sometimes furious pace of hospital work, it can be easy for C-L psychiatrists to be seduced by the idea of the quick, focused consult that simply responds to a simple question with a simple answer. Because cases involving ethical dilemmas often involve multiple stakeholders, each with his or her own set of concerns, a brief consult focused only on the patient often leads to errors of omission. A wider approach, such as that suggested by the Four Topics Method, is needed to successfully negotiate ethical dilemmas. Busy C-L psychiatry services may struggle at first to find the time to do the type of global evaluations discussed here, but increasing familiarity with approaches such as the Four Topics Method should lead to quicker ways of gathering and processing the needed information.
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