The Evolution of American Hospital Ethics Committees: A Systematic Review


Andrew Courtwright and Martha Jurchak


During the 1970s and 1980s, legal precedent, governmental  recommendations, and professional society guidelines drove the formation of hospital ethics committees (HECs). The Joint Commission on Accreditation of Health Care Organizationís requirements in the early 1990s solidified the role of HECs as the primary mechanism to address ethical issues in patient care. Because external factors drove the rapid growth of HECs on an institution-by-institution basis, however, no initial consensus formed around the structure and function of these committees. There are now almost 40 years of empirical studies on the composition, administration, and activities of HECs in the United States. We conducted a systematic review of the available empirical literature on HECs to describe their evolution. As HECs changed over time, they increased their total number of members and percentage of members from nursing and the community. Although physicians increasingly chaired these committees, their presence as a percentage of overall members declined. The percentage of administrative members remained steady, although committees became increasingly likely to have at least one administrative member. HECs were also increasingly likely to report to an administrative body or to the board of trustees or directors rather than to the medical staff. Finally, consultation volume increased steadily over time. There has not, however, been a national survey of the composition of ethics committees, their administration, or volume of consultation in more than 10 years, despite increasing calls for professional standards and quality improvement assessments among HECs.

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