When there's no right answer, ethicist makes options clearer

Worried man in hospital

For many of us, it’s our worst nightmare: Someone you love is in the hospital, unconscious. The care team is looking to you to make a difficult decision on that person’s behalf. It may be the most difficult decision you’ve ever had to make.

At Salem Health there is someone who helps guide you through difficult decisions—the medical ethicist.

“Medical ethics is about figuring out how to move forward when you’re faced with tough questions,” said Hong Lee, Salem Health’s medical ethicist. “I don’t make decisions for people, but I can help them see the pros and cons of their choices.”

The patient comes first

Lee said that while he is a staff member at Salem Heath, he considers his first duty to be to patients.

“There are four principles that guide me when I’m helping someone,” he said. “Do no harm. Treat people with respect and fairness, and keep the focus on what’s in the patient’s best interest.”

Of course, knowing what’s in the patient’s best interest can be hard when emotions are running high and the way forward is not clear.

“Health care is an emotionally charged topic for most people, even when the question isn’t life-or-death,” Lee said.

“It’s normal for families to be uncomfortable talking about the financial cost of continuing treatment when a patient has a poor prognosis,” Lee said, “or they may be struggling to decide whether Mom would be better off at home or in assisted living.”

Lee says that in these situations, he will often speak to everyone involved—patient, family and care team—to get a complete picture of each decision’s possible consequences. He can also look into ethical-legal issues that may arise. With that information, he can offer people clear choices and help resolve conflicts.

No question too small

Confidential ethics consultations are available free of charge to all patients, family members, visitors and staff at Salem Health. Call 503-814-2333, Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. A member of the ethics team will arrange a private meeting with you to discuss your situation and begin working towards a resolution.

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