Ethics Committee Consultation and Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation

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The clinical ethics literature on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) has been focused primarily on identifying hypothetical ethical dilemmas that may arise with the use of this technology. Little has been written on the actual experience with ECMO-related ethical questions.


To describe the role of an ethics consultation service during the expansion of a single-center ECMO program in a cardiothoracic surgery intensive care unit (CSICU) and to identify common ethical themes surrounding the use of ECMO.


We conducted a retrospective, descriptive cohort study of all ECMO ethics consultation cases in the CSICU at a large academic hospital between 2013 and 2015.

Measurements and Main Results:

During the study period, 113 patients were placed on ECMO in the CSICU, 45 (39.5%) of whom were seen by the ethics committee. In 2013, 10 of 46 (21.7%) patients received ethics consults. By 2015, 28 of 30 (93.3%) of patients were seen by ethics consultants. Initial consultation occurred at a median of 2 days (interquartile range, 1-6 d) following initiation of ECMO. The most common ethical issue involved disagreement about the ongoing use of ECMO, which included multiple axes: Disagreement among health care providers, disagreement among surrogates, and disagreement between health care providers and surrogates over stopping or continuing ECMO.


In our experience with integrating ethics consultation into the routine care of ECMO patients, most of the ethical questions more closely resembled traditional concerns about the appropriate use of any life-sustaining treatment rather than the novel dilemmas imagined in the current literature.

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