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Consultation activities of clinical ethics committees in the United Kingdom: an empirical study and wake-up call
  1. J M Whitehead1,
  2. D K Sokol2,
  3. D Bowman2,
  4. P Sedgwick2
  1. 1
    St George’s, University of London, London, UK
  2. 2
    Centre for Medical and Healthcare Education, St George’s, University of London, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Jessica M Whitehead, St George’s, University of London, London SW17 0RE, UK; m0600174{at}


Objective: To identify the consultation activities of clinical ethics committees (CECs) in the UK and the views of CEC chairpersons regarding such activities.

Methods: An anonymous, password-protected online questionnaire was sent by e-mail to 70 CEC chairpersons. The questionnaire contained 14 items.

Results: Of the 70 CECs contacted, 30 responded (a response rate of 43%). There has been an almost fourfold increase in the number of CECs in the past 7 years. Over half of the CECs that responded had considered three or fewer active cases and three or fewer retrospective cases in the preceding year. Eighty percent of chairpersons felt that the number of active cases considered by their committee was too low. Seventy percent of CECs had rapid response teams. Aside from low consultation caseloads, chairpersons identified a number of concerns, including education and training of members, composition of CECs, low profile and lack of funding and support. Although most respondents believed there is a need for clinical ethics support in the NHS, many noted the limited use of the services, even after efforts to increase the visibility of their CEC.

Conclusion: Despite a sharp increase in the absolute numbers of CECs across the UK, the number of cases considered by the majority of CECs is low. The findings presented here suggest we must reflect on the reasons for such low caseloads and pause to consider whether the committee model is most appropriate for the UK context.

  • medical ethics

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  • An appendix is published online only at

  • Competing interests DS is a member of two clinical ethics committees and has spent time in North America working with clinical ethicists.

  • Contributors DS had the idea for the study. He devised the questionnaire, collected the data and helped in the writing of the article. The literature search, data analysis, and much of the writing were carried out by JW. DB and PS contributed to the interpretation of the data and the drafting. PS performed the statistical analysis.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • See Editorial, p 449

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