Bioethics Blogs

Strengthening Hospital Ethics Committees

The first hospital ethics committees in the nation were established in the 1970s, and the primary catalyst for their growth was the 1976 Karen Quinlan case. As the case was argued, the judge, who had read an article about ethics committees in the Baylor Law Review, remarked that cases like this belong before ethics committees rather than courts.

In 1992, the Joint Commission – then the Joint Commission for the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations – mandated that hospitals establish a clinical ethics “mechanism.” For more than two decades, this guidance has allowed hospitals to craft widely varied responses. A facility may or may not have a standing ethics committee. The committee may or may not meet regularly. Its members may or may not have training in thinking through issues ethically.

The three primary functions of ethics committees, as identified by the American Hospital Association in 1986, are to:
• Educate themselves to “do ethics”
• Develop and review hospital policies
• Consult on complex cases arising in the hospital

Center for Practical Bioethics’ Efforts

In 1986, in response to numerous ethics committee members seeking opportunities to learn from each other, the Center for Practical Bioethics, which counseled both sides of the Cruzan case, convened the Kansas City Regional Hospital Ethics Committee Consortium, This is the oldest continuously operating Consortium of its kind in the nation.


In a project entitled “Organizational Ethics: Beyond Compliance,” Center staff traveled to cities across the country to present new standards for patients’ rights and organizational ethics, after collaborating with the Joint Commission in 1993 to promulgate them.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.