Surprisingly little is known about the content of ethics consultants' recommendations. We chose to study this issue using hypothetical persistent vegetative state (PVS) cases. We addressed four questions: What recommendations do ethics consultants give regarding life-prolonging treatment (LPT) in PVS cases? To what degree is there consensus? What factors influence recommendations? Do recommendations conform to established guidelines?Design
Questionnaire survey. Our questionnaire asked subjects what they would recommend for seven hypothetical vignettes involving a PVS patient that varied with respect to advance directives and family wishes. We also questioned subjects about demographic characteristics, ethics consultation experience, and personal preference for LPT in PVS.Subjects
Attendees at an annual meeting of the Society for Bioethics Consultation (n=154).Results
The response rate was 77%. Eighty-one percent of respondents were ethics committee members and 62% were ethics consultants. There was general agreement among respondents for only one of seven vignettes: in the case of a PVS patient whose advance directive and family agree that LPT be stopped, 93% recommended stopping all LPT. Responses to other vignettes varied considerably. Although patient wishes were an important factor influencing recommendations, none of the respondents adhered invariably to the patient's advance directive. Recommendations were also influenced by family wishes, resource allocation considerations, legal constraints, and personal preference for LPT in PVS. Guidelines we examined were generally too equivocal to be useful for evaluating ethics consultants' recommendations.Conclusions
The finding of wide variability in ethics consultants' recommendations suggests a need to clarify standards for ethics consultation.