Ever hear the expression it’s all in your head? In witnessing a pattern of ethics consults, I have been wondering lately how much of ethical dilemmas are truly perceived dilemmas and not really dilemmas at all. We are our own worst enemies in many ways and health care providers are no exceptions to the flaws of humanity. We perceive a conflict and therefore a conflict arises. Then comes the need for an ethics consultant. Perceptions drive much of society, including ethical dilemmas.
A physician will hear a label, whether it is ‘drug-addict,’ ‘Christian,’ ‘illiterate,’ ‘difficult,’ ‘noncompliant,’ and he/she will assume all the characteristics that go with that label. This will then create a perceived conflict between the provider and patient based on the presumed characteristics. These labels could have attached to the patient years prior to the current admission but yet, they remain in a patient’s record as past medical history. The classic example is ‘wanting everything done’ when it comes to end-of-life care. Many jump to the conclusion based on particular faiths (or even just hearing that the patient is religious) that patients and families want everything done and will not be open to a conversation about comfort care and hospice. They assume based on a label, that may not be true. A perceived conflict has emerged. These assumptions change how the conversation will go, whether the physician realizes it or not, because the physician is preparing for a challenge. A simple question or inquiry by a family or friend about the medical information may then seem like push-back, since that is what the physician is expecting, when in reality it is just a question.
I joke that it’s part of the ethics magic of just appearing in a room and problems are solved, but yet, there is more to it. Many would argue that it is the comforting and supporting presence just in case something goes wrong in conversations with patients and families. The presence being the ethics consultant. Much of it is facing the perceived dilemma only to realize there is no conflict at all. This is also the role of the ethics consultant, to face the conflict with the provider and to show that nothing’s wrong. There has many family meetings where providers have asked for an ethics consultant for a variety of reasons and it turns out that the providers could handle the conversation without any assistance. Some may say this is a good provider because the physician is recognizing his/her own limits and asking for help. And maybe it is but maybe labeling it as a conflict is not the best approach either.