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Undergraduate conference report by IME grant recipient, Simrit Kudhail

KUDHAIL Image_presentationSimrit is a 4th year student at University of Birmingham who was awarded IME funding to enable him to attend & present at the UNESCO 12th World Conference in Bioethics on 21-23 March in Limassol, Cyprus

The UNESCO Bioethics conference was established to provide academics and healthcare professionals from a wide range of fields with a forum to discuss prevalent and emergent issues of bioethics, healthcare ethics and medical law. Conference attendees represented many different countries and professions, allowing cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural presentations and discussions of these issues, with the aims of raising awareness and presenting novel ideas or possible solutions to a range of ethical issues.

I attended the conference to present the research I conducted during my Healthcare Ethics and Law intercalation year at the University of Birmingham, in which I discussed whether religious patients should be considered autonomous in their decision-making. I hoped that by discussing my research with experts in the field, I would gain a valuable insight into the strengths and limitations of my work, allowing me to develop it further before aiming for a publication. I also hoped to hear others' research on autonomy and see whether my notions of autonomy were similar that of the other presenters, and also whether my research was applicable to their presentations. In this report I reflect on the presentations concerning patients' autonomy and their implications on my own research.

My main area of reflection concerned the difference in the use of autonomy between myself and the other presenters; where my research intended to provide a theoretical revision of autonomy as a rational concept, others' presentations concerned autonomy as a practical principle that all patients ought to have. One such presentation by a Sudanese doctor discussed the rights of adolescents in decision-making in Sudan (Ebtihal Eltyeb, Saudi Arabia). Her presentation eluded to the use of something similar to Gillick-Fraser competence, but it was interesting to hear her attempts to establish a criteria by which adolescents could be given the right to their own healthcare decisions whilst also managing complex cultural traditions (for example examination by doctors of the opposite sex). Another presentation by a British academic discussed the use of a new toolkit (the Mental Capacity Assessment Support Tool, M Jayes, University of Sheffield) which allows healthcare professionals to ensure patients have the capacity to make their decisions. Once again this used autonomy as a practical principle, using Beauchamp and Childress' concept of autonomy as freedom from external influence, achievable through capacity and informed consent.

In this respect, my research was significantly different. I felt a to think theoretically to determine if religious and cultural beliefs were philosophically compatible with autonomy by critiquing whether philosophical accounts of autonomy allowed external influences on decision-making. To do this, I had to move away from the use of autonomy as freedom from external influence, as religion and cultural traditions are themselves external influences. All of these accounts suggested autonomy needed some rational aspect in the decision-making process, whether it is hierarchical desires, coherence with other beliefs, or normative competency. Therefore my research concluded that theoretically, religious or cultural beliefs that have undergone some rational critique can be considered autonomous – a process which I called rational consideration. Thus my presentation was theoretical instead of practical, and concerned autonomy itself rather than the practicalities of decision-making.

The difference in definition was made clear after my presentation, as the first questioner asked "but is autonomy actually rational?" To me, this made it clear that many people do not see autonomy as a property in its philosophical sense, and instead use the word autonomy as a synonym for the patient's own choice which does not necessarily involve a rational component. Thus my reply to the question had to make it clear that I felt our current view of autonomy has moved too far from its philosophical origin, as autonomy is necessarily rational, and I therefore felt non-rational decision-making cannot be considered autonomous. Replying to this question sensitively was one of the hardest aspects of the presentation, and this stressed the importance of making this ethical distinction clearer in my development of this research.

Alongside talks on autonomy, I also attended the sessions run on medical ethics education, disaster ethics, and ethical implications of end of life treatment. One of these presentations - 'Mediating Religious Objections to End-Of-Life Care' (Kartina Choong, University of Central Lancashire) - explored the use of mediation between families and medics as a way to overcome possible conflicts between the religious beliefs of the patient or the patient's family and the medical team. Interestingly this research reached a similar conclusion to my own, in suggesting accepting dissent of treatment on the grounds of their perceptions of their religious belief is not necessarily the right option. Instead, the process of mediation allows the medical team and the patient's family to explore the beliefs in question, and discuss the best outcomes for the patient. This process is in essence similar to the process of rational consideration which I suggested was necessary to ensure decision-making based on religious influence can be considered autonomous; the difference being that the rational process in Choong's research is done by a group on behalf of an individual, whereas rational consideration as I described it is done by the individual themselves.

Whilst this report focuses on autonomy and religious belief, it was inspiring to see a wide range of people discussing a variety of topics concerning medical ethics. Attending a conference with the primary aim of exploring issues in bioethics, healthcare ethics and law across the world has made it clear that medical ethics is incredibly relevant in today's society, and it is becoming more significant globally Yet the cultural diversity we see means that one solution for a given problem isn't always possible, and cultural beliefs and practices affect the ethical issues we will face. Thus it is important we discuss these issues globally in an attempt to find the best solutions possible at that time, and plan for future developments in medical ethics.