Gender and Race in the Timing of Requests for Ethics Consultations:

A Single-Center Study


Bethany Spielman, Christine Gorka, Keith Miller, Carolyn A. Pointer, and Barbara Hinze


Background: Clinical ethics consultants are expected to “reduce disparities, discrimination, and inequities when providing consultations,” but few studies about inequities in ethics consultation exist.1 The objectives of this study were (1) to determine if there were racial or gender differences in the timing of requests for ethics consultations related to limiting treatment, and (2) if such differences were found, to identify factors associated with that difference and the role, if any, of ethics consultants in mitigating them.


Methods: The study was a mixed methods retrospective study of consultation summaries and hospital and ethics center data on 56 age-and gender-matched Caucasian and African American Medicare patients who received ethics consultations related to issues around limiting medical treatment in the period 2011 to 2014. The average age of patients was 70.9.


Results: Consultation requests for females were made significantly earlier in their stays in the hospital (6.57 days) than were consultation requests made for males (16.07 days). For African American patients, the differences in admission-to-request intervals for female patients (5.93 days) and male patients (18.64 days) were greater than for Caucasian male and female patients. Differences in the timing of a consultation were not significantly correlated with the presence of an advance directive, the specialty of the attending physician, or the reasons for the consult request. Ethics consultants may have mitigated problems that developed during the lag in request times for African American males by spending more time, on average, on those consultations (316 minutes), especially more time, on average, than on consultations with Caucasian females (195 minutes). Most consultations (40 of 56) did result in movement toward limiting treatment, but no statistically significant differences were found among the groups studied in the movement toward limiting treatment. The average number of days from consult to discharge or death were strongly correlated with the intervals between admission to the hospital and request for an ethics consultation.


Conclusion: Our findings suggest race and gender disparities in the timing of ethics consultations that consultants may have partially mitigated.


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