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Why health services research needs bioethics
  1. Lucy Frith
  1. Correspondence to Dr Lucy Frith, Department of Health Services Research, The University of Liverpool, Waterhouse Building, Brownlow Street, Liverpool L69 3GL, UK; L.J.Frith{at}

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It is nearly 20 years since Tony Hope wrote an editorial in this journal on Empirical Medical Ethics,1 arguing for both a recognition of the increasing amount of work being done in ‘empirical ethics’ and for its importance as a new direction for medical ethics research. Since then empirical ethics has flourished, with debates over the role of ‘empirical’ data in ethical reasoning producing a growing body of literature and the JME and other bioethics journals regularly publishing empirical studies. While bio/medical ethics has grappled with ‘incorporating’ or using more empirical data in ethical analysis, with varying degrees of success, and some criticism, there has not been a corresponding willingness of more empirical disciplines to embrace ethical analysis. This is a particular lack for applied research areas that see their role as predominately influencing policy and practice, such as health services research.

Health services research ‘is the integration of epidemiological, sociological, economic, and other analytic sciences in the study of health services.’ Whose ‘main goals … are to identify the most effective ways to organize, manage, finance, and deliver high quality care; reduce medical errors; and improve patient safety’.2 Health services research brings together a wide variety of disciplines and would seem ideally placed to include ethics. However, if you search health services research journals and conference programmes there is very little consideration of ethics as a substantive topic and often scant attention paid to the ethical issues that might be raised by an intervention or policy. Ethics and ethical issues are generally confined to discussions over priority setting, and occasionally health technology assessment, with other areas of health service research seldom engaging in ethical debate. In the Encyclopaedia of Health Services Research,3 ethics …

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  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; internally peer reviewed.