Going Backwards to Fill in the Missing Processes for Training and Evaluation of Clinical Bioethicists: What Has Been Needed for Decades to Move Real Professionalism Forward

Evan G. DeRenzo




As the field of clinical bioethics has moved from its pioneers, who turned their attention to ethics problems in clinical medicine and clinical and animal research, to today’s ubiquity of university degrees and fellowships in bioethics, there has been a steady drumbeat to professionalize the field. The problem has been that the necessary next steps—to specify the skills, knowledge, and personal and professional attributes of a clinical bioethicist, and to have a method to train and evaluate mastery of these standards—are lacking.

      Ordinarily, the path to professionalism in medicine starts with the intellectual pioneers. Then come those who develop early experience in clinical settings. Then comes the specification of the skills, knowledge, and personal and professional attributes needed to perform the activities of the new specialty or subspecialty. And only then, after a method to train and evaluate levels of mastery from novice to advanced practitioner has been developed, comes credible credentialing and certification/licensing.

      Unfortunately, the field of clinical bioethics has skipped these steps. Rather, a credential, that is, the Healthcare Ethics Consultant (HEC) certification, was created by a small group within the bioethics professional association, the American Society of Bioethics and Humanities (ASBH), without community agreement or necessary input. Further, the testing of processes to train HECs and to evaluate their levels of mastery of competencies was prematurely forwarded as sufficient evidence of competence in clinical ethics. That is, the credential, offered by the ASBH for a fee upon passing an exam, based on how many hours one has been involved in clinical consultation, about which there is no field agreement on how such consultations ought to be conducted and for which controversial standards have been set by a few, is being touted as evidence of competence in clinical bioethics. In their article, “Competencies and Milestones for Bioethics Trainees,” Sawyer and colleagues identify the central weakness of these claims to professionalization and provide the field the first substantive assessment tool and method to train and evaluate competencies. The tool these authors present is the real next step forward for true professionalization of the field of clinical bioethics.



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