Clinical Medical Ethics: Its History and Contributions to American Medicine


Mark Siegler

The Journal of Clinical Ethics 30, no. 1 (Spring 2019): 17-26.


In 1972, I created the new field of clinical medical ethics (CME) in the Department of Medicine at the University of Chicago. In my view, CME is an intrinsic part of medicine and is not a branch of bioethics or philosophical ethics or legal ethics. The relationship of patients with medically trained and licensed clinicians is at the very heart of CME. CME must be practiced and applied not by nonclinical bioethicists, but rather by licensed clinicians in their routine, daily encounters with inpatients and outpatients. CME addresses many clinical issues such as truth-telling, informed consent, confidentiality, surrogate decision making, and end-of-life care, while also encouraging personal, humane, and compassionate interactions between experienced clinicians and patients.

      The goals of CME are to improve patient care and outcomes by helping physicians and other health professionals identify and respond to clinical-ethical challenges that arise in the ordinary care of patients. As Edmund Pellegrino, Peter A. Singer, and I wrote in the first issue of The Journal of Clinical Ethics, 30 years ago: “The central goal of CME is to improve the quality of patient care by identifying, analyzing, and contributing to the resolution of ethical problems that arise in the routine practice of clinical medicine.” Similar to cardiology and oncology consultations, ethics consultations are a small component of a much larger field, and the process of consultations is certainly not at the core of cardiology or oncology or CME.

      In this article, I intend to discuss the origins of the field of CME, its goals and methods, the relationship between the broad field of CME and the much narrower practice of ethics consultation, the contributions of the MacLean Center at the University of Chicago in developing the field of CME, and, finally, how CME has improved the practice of medicine in the United States.



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