A national survey of U.S. internists' experiences with ethical dilemmas and ethics consultation

J Gen Intern Med. 2004 Mar;19(3):251-8. doi: 10.1111/j.1525-1497.2004.21238.x.


Objective: To identify the ethical dilemmas that internists encounter, the strategies they use to address them, and the usefulness of ethics consultation.

Design: National telephone survey.

Setting: Doctors' offices.

Participants: General internists, oncologists, and critical care/pulmonologists (N = 344, 64% response rate).

Measurements: Types of ethical dilemmas recently encountered and likelihood of requesting ethics consultation; satisfaction with resolution of ethical dilemmas with and without ethics consultation.

Results: Internists most commonly reported dilemmas regarding end-of-life decision making, patient autonomy, justice, and conflict resolution. General internists, oncologists, and critical care specialists reported participating in an average of 1.4, 1.3, and 4.1 consultations in the preceding 2 years, respectively (P <.0001). Physicians with the least ethics training had the least access to and participated in the fewest ethics consultations; 19% reported consultation was unavailable at their predominant practice site. Dilemmas about end-of-life decisions and patient autonomy were often referred for consultation, while dilemmas about justice, such as lack of insurance or limited resources, were rarely referred. While most physicians thought consultations yielded information that would be useful in dealing with future ethical dilemmas (72%), some hesitated to seek ethics consultation because they believed it was too time consuming (29%), might make the situation worse (15%), or that consultants were unqualified (11%).

Conclusions: While most internists recall recent ethical dilemmas in their practices, those with the least preparation and experience have the least access to ethics consultation. Health care organizations should emphasize ethics educational activities to prepare physicians for handling ethical dilemmas on their own and should improve the accessibility and responsiveness of ethics consultation when needed.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Codes of Ethics
  • Conflict, Psychological*
  • Disclosure
  • Ethics Consultation*
  • Ethics, Clinical*
  • Ethics, Medical*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Internal Medicine / ethics*
  • Male
  • Patient Advocacy
  • Physicians / ethics*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires