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What and who are clinical ethics committees for?
  1. Sheila A M McLean
  1. Correspondence to:
 Sheila A M McLean
 Institute of Law and Ethics in Medicine, University of Glasgow, The Stair Building, Glasgow G12 8QQ, UK; s.a.m.mclean{at}

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As support for clinical ethics committees in the UK grows, care must be taken to define their function, membership and method of working and the status of their decisions.

The modern practice of medicine raises a plethora of complex issues—medical, ethical and legal. Doctors and other healthcare professionals increasingly must try to resolve these and may sometimes have to do so in the face of contrary opinion expressed by patients and/or their surrogates. While clearly qualified in the medical arena, and although there is now more ethics teaching in the medical curriculum, healthcare professionals are seldom qualified to adjudicate on ethical or legal matters, or even, perhaps, to recognise them when they arise. Yet, as Doyal says, “clinical life must go on and moral and legal indeterminacy within medicine cries out for practical resolution.”1 Meanwhile, the expectations of patients and their families—and, indeed, of wider society—are that decisions about patient care, resources and therapeutic regimes should be soundly based on appropriate ethicolegal, as well as scientific, principle.

Recognition of these additional burdens on healthcare professionals has generated some interest in the provision of ethics consultation. In the USA (and elsewhere) this has been undertaken by a variety of tribunals and individuals. Hospital ethics committees and ethics consultants feature in many US hospitals and perform a variety of roles. In Europe, a number of countries have also established clinical ethics committees (CECs) and they are becoming more common in the UK—primarily in England and Wales for the moment. Whereas, however, “[i]n North America, CECs have … become an integral part of the organisational infrastructure of hospitals ...”,1 in the United Kingdom they remain essentially ad hoc bodies, generated for a variety of reasons and with different goals, structures, membership, methods of working and functions. The initial impetus for the …

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  • i With additional funding from NHS Grampian.

  • Competing interests: None declared.

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