With a Master’s degree in Public Health, a doctorate in philosophy and bioethics, Dr. Katherine Wasson is an Assistant Professor at Loyola University Chicago. In 2008, she joined the faculty of the Neiswanger Institute of Bioethics at the Stritch School of Medicine where she is also the Director of the Bioethics & Professionalism Honors Program. She instructs medical and graduate students, conducts research and works as a clinical ethics consultant.
What first attracted you to the work of bioethics and health policy?
Katie Wasson: The notion you could look into ethical concepts and theories and then actually apply them really peaked my interest. While in Oxford, where I spent a year abroad during my undergraduate degree, I realized bioethics was an academic field I could also do as a practice.
What is an early experience you have of ethics in relation to health care and medicine?
KW: Once I finished my undergraduate degree, I spent time working in the United Kingdom and completing my PhD in Bioethics. Since then I have held great interest in moral decision-making, specifically the theories and practices that underlie the process for people. Decision-making in the realm of health care particularly grabbed my attention then and continues to do so now.
Why do you continue to participate in this field of study?
KW: Bioethics is quite challenging yet it has the possibility of making a difference in the real world. While some bioethics scholars stay in the ivory tower, a more direct and applied approach remains a real draw for me. Clinical practice is where the rubber hits the road and people are faced with difficult ethical decisions. I’m regularly reminded that all of us face moral decisions in our lives and health care is no exception.
In your work as a bioethicist, what is one focus area of your research?
KW: One area I focus my attention on is direct-to-consumer genetic-testing, where any person can order a type of genetic testing for multiple disease risk estimates without health care professionals being involved. This practice raises a whole series of ethical issues. I recently conducted a study, along with colleagues at Loyola, on primary care patients’ attitudes and decision making about, and experience of direct-to-consumer genetic testing. It was interesting to examine the range of views and experiences these patients had about this type of testing. Another focus of my research is moral distress, which is defined as the psychological disequilibrium caused by believing you know the ethically ideal or “right” action to take but being unable to take it due to internal or external constraints. Moral distress can lead to burn out or leaving a health profession. Along with colleagues at Loyola, we have conducted the first research study on moral distress in burn intensive care unit nurses. We developed and evaluated a pilot intervention to try to address moral distress in this group.
In the Journal of Burn Care and Research, you recently co-published a medical article. What is the topic of this article and it proceeding results?
KW: The article, titled “A Pilot Study Examining Moral Distress in Nurses Working in One United States Burn Center,” is the first study published on moral distress and burn-intensive care nurses. The pilot study developed and analyzed ways of trying to address moral distress in this sample. Burn nurses have challenging jobs which can include caring for adults and children who have been victims of accidental burns or been harmed by another person. They also may have self-inflicted injuries. My fellow researchers and I have developed an intervention strategy for addressing the moral distress stemming from the care of patients in the burn-intensive care unit.
How does this research contribute to bioethics and health policy?
KW: The recent study on moral distress contributes to our knowledge in health care. Researchers and clinicians still do not know what to do, what does and does not work in tackling moral distress. The reality of moral distress is not limited to nurses. We can measure this distress but do not necessarily know how to help people cope with it. The research I am participating in is new and developing. Moral distress is and, I suspect, will continue to be a topic of concern and further research as we try to find ways of addressing and dealing with moral distress in the health care professions.
A Pilot Study Examining Moral Distress in Nurses Working in One United States Burn Center. Journal of Burn Care & Research: September/October 2013, Vol.34, Issue 5, pp.521-528. Leggett, Jeanie M. RN, BSN, MA; Wasson, Katherine PhD, MPH; Sinacore, James M. PhD; Gamelli, Richard L. MD
Click here for the link to the abstract. A subscription is required to view full article.
(Interview conducted by Brent Smith, intern, Dominican University)