Where to Turn When Issues Fall “On the Line”
Barbara Atkinson’s interest in medical ethics emerged from her experiences while doing cytopathology (the diagnosis of cancer and infections from the examination of cells) as a faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania.
“If, for example, you make a diagnosis of cancer,” said Barbara, “you’re obligated to tell the patient’s physician. But sometimes the patient’s family calls wanting information that’s not really appropriate for me, as the pathologist, to tell them. What if the patient wants to keep the information private?”
Later in her career, as chair of the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the Medical College of Pennsylvania and subsequently as Annenberg Dean of the Medical College of Pennsylvania Hahnemann School of Medicine (now Drexel University College of Medicine), Barbara faced ethical issues at the institutional level. Such as whether to dismiss a medical student who’s done something inappropriate or unethical. Or, the limits around which an institution should be able to benefit from a business that grew out of an employee’s research project.
“Some issues are cut and dry,” said Barbara. “Clearly, if a patient hasn’t given approval to share information with the family, then it’s not okay to do that. But many issues fall right on the line, and that’s where the Center helps. The issue could have to do with chronic pain, which is very important because you have to find the balance between avoiding addiction versus not providing enough medicine for pain relief when necessary. Physicians often need to get help in making those types of decisions.”
Barbara left Philadelphia to head the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the University of Kansas School of Medicine and in 2002 became Dean of the School of Medicine and then in 2005 also became executive vice chancellor, responsible for the school’s efforts to recruit new faculty and expand KUMC’s biomedical research and other programs. Throughout her university career, she helped lead small groups in medical ethics courses for medical students.
Having served on the Institute of Medicine since her election in 1997 and as a member of President Obama’s Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, Barbara brings a national perspective to her role as vice chair of the Center’s board of directors.
“The Presidential Commission,” she said, “gives advice to the President, the Secretary of Health and Human Services and anyone in the government who requests help in dealing with a major bioethical issue. It’s comparable to what the Center does, just at a different level.”