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Codes and Guidelines

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Range of Purposes Behind Codes

Codes of ethics in the professions serve numerous purposes. At the level of the profession itself, codes document the standards according to which the profession can be held accountable for the conduct of its members. Further, because society relegates control for many of the professions to the professional organizations themselves, the professions have developed codes to provide the basis of self-regulation (Soskolne 1989). At the level of the individual professional, codes can provide a practical guide to members of the profession who might be experiencing a moral or ethical dilemma concerning their professional conduct in a particular circumstance. Where a professional finds himself or herself in a state of moral or ethical tension, it is self-evident that codes can be helpful in providing counsel.

The existence of a code provides the basis of a profession’s ethics programme of activity designed to instil ethical standards among its membership (Gellermann, Frankel and Ladenson 1990; Hall 1993). Revisions to the code can be considered through grass-roots individual membership input at organizational meetings, workshops and conferences. This ongoing discussion of issues and concerns constitutes a review process ensuring that any code remains sensitive to changing social values. Professions depending for their sustenance on public support thereby improve their likelihood of remaining publicly accountable and relevant (Glick and Shamoo 1993).

Codes could assist professionals being charged with malpractice and perhaps even in litigation. Demonstrated adherence to one’s professional code would likely be deemed indicative of adherence to standards of practice consistent with professional norms. If such practice were to have resulted in harm, the code-abiding individual professional would be less likely to be found guilty of having committed a wrong. However, based on the principle of trust (Pellegrino, Veatch and Langan 1991), the public has the expectation that the best possible professional judgement will be exercised in the public interest. Where the physician-patient relationship is concerned, the patient has the right under the principle of trust to expect that his or her interests will be best served. However, an ethical tension arises when the public good is potentially harmed in circumstances where the individual patient’s best interests are being served. In such circumstances, it is the public good that will usually need to take precedence over that of the individual. Regardless, codes provide no substitute for legal liability dimensions of conduct for which government has enacted laws to protect the public interest (Cohen 1982).

Weight and Intent of Codes

Codes do have associated with them the notion of statutory force, implying the ability for their enforcement through the administering of some type of disciplinary action. Indeed, the notions of accountability and self-regulation referred to above have associated with them some sense of control (minimally, peer pressure; maximally, the removal of licence to practice) that can be exercised over the members of the profession by the professional organization itself. Because of this, some professional organizations have preferred to avoid these connotations associated with codes and opt rather for “guidelines”. The latter emphasize guidance with fewer implications for enforcement associated with them. Other groups have preferred to avoid all connotations associated with codes or guidelines; instead, they have preferred to develop “declarations on ethics” for their specific organizations (Jowell 1986). Throughout this chapter the term code will imply “guidelines”.

It should be apparent that codes (and also guidelines) do not carry the force of law. In essence, codes and guidelines are intended to provide guidance for professionals, collectively and individually, in their relationships with their clients (including patients and research subjects), with their colleagues and co-workers (including their students), and with the public (including stakeholder groups). In addition, codes require that the quality of professional work and hence the stature of the profession itself is advanced. In general, codes associated with the physician-patient relationship will require that the patient’s interests take precedence over any other interests; the physician is placed firmly in the position of “patient advocate”. One exception to this would arise in the context of infectious diseases, where the patient’s rights may have to be considered second to the public welfare. In contrast, however, it can generally be stated that codes associated with scientific research will require that the public interest take precedence over any individual or other interests. One exception would be where a researcher discovers child abuse in a research subject; here the researcher would have the obligation to report this to the child welfare authorities.

Code Development, Review and Revision

The process by which codes are developed has consequences for their application. By including members of the profession and students of the profession in code development, as well as in code review and revision, ownership of the resultant document by a greater number of individuals is believed more likely. With broad-based ownership, increased compliance by a greater number is believed more assured.

Content and Structure of Codes

The content of a code should be user friendly to maximize its utility. Codes can be of varying length. Some are brief, while some are substantial. The more substantial that a code is, the more specific it is possible for it to be. Codes can be made to be user friendly by virtue of their structure and content. For example, a summary set of the principles upon which the code is based could be presented first, followed by expanded aspirational or prescriptive statements, which constitute the code itself. These can be followed by a commentary that explicates each statement in turn, perhaps noting special circumstances in the form of case studies that might serve as useful examples. The principles and their interpretation(s), however, are highly dependent on the values recognized as inherent to the pursuits of a profession. While these values may be universal, interpretations as well as practices at the local and regional levels may differ. Thus, while a statement of the profession’s core values can provide an anchor for its statements on ethics and should appear as a preface to the guidelines (Gellermann, Frankel and Ladenson 1990), sensitivity to regional differences can be demonstrated through the more detailed commentary and case study materials.

The commentary should incorporate, or could be followed by or complemented with, case study materials that derive from real-life instances of ethical dilemmas or tensions. The case study materials could be ethically analysed in either sanitized (i.e., anonymous) form, or can be made to reflect the parties involved (of course, only with the approval of the parties for their names to be included) (for example, Soskolne 1991). The objective behind case studies is not to seek retribution, but rather to provide examples for teaching purposes. Learning is enhanced by real-life situations.

It is from an understanding of the code that it becomes possible for a profession to develop more detailed standards of practice. These address more specific areas of activity associated with professional conduct, including a broad range of activity from interpersonal behaviours to both how research is conducted and how the results of that research are communicated. Standards of practice for the profession could be included in an ethics package; they reflect on each profession’s skill set and therefore add particular considerations that go beyond the statement of its ethics principles.

Scope of Codes

The development of a code by any profession has almost invariably tended to be driven by issues having a direct bearing on that profession. Consequently, codes tend to have a focus narrowly defined by each profession’s own concerns. However, codes also need to take broader social issues into account (Fawcett 1993). In fact, in a recent analysis of several codes, Summers et al. (1995) found that guidelines on specific social issues, such as environmental effects or conflict resolution, are scarcely mentioned at all in existing codes. Because the professions manifest substantial influence, if their codes indeed were to take broader social issues into account, then a great confluence and concurrence of effort would be brought to bear on those areas of human endeavour that currently fall between the cracks in promoting the common social good. Such pressure could help reduce dangers to human welfare, such as militarism and ecological destruction.

Ethics Training

It should be recognized that there exist two schools of thought for ethics training: one is based in a principle-driven approach while the other is case based, also known as casuistry. It is this author’s view, which remains to be tested, that a balance between the two is essential for successful applied ethics training in the professions (Soskolne 1991/92). However, it is well known that ethically analyzed case study material has an invaluable role to play in the education process. Cases provide a context for applying principles.

Because graduate ethics training in the professions is becoming more recognized as an essential place for students to gain awareness of the values, ethical principles and standards of practice of the profession, a model curriculum might ideally be included as part of a code; this will facilitate the training of students intent on entering the profession. The need for this is demonstrated through a recent survey that identified inconsistencies and shortcomings regarding the ethics components in graduate training programmes across the United States (Swazey, Anderson and Seashore 1993).

Recent History of Codes in Selected Professions

In western cultures, the medical profession has had the advantage of discussions about ethics since the time of Socrates (470–399 B.C.), Plato (427–347 B.C.) and Aristotle (384–322 B.C.) (Johnson 1965). Since then, codes have been developed and periodically revised in response to newly recognized issues arising, for example, from human value shifts and, more recently, from technological advances (Declaration of Helsinki 1975; Ad hoc Committee on Medical Ethics 1984; Russel and Westrin 1992). Since the 1960s, other professions have become involved in code development for their own professional organizations. The area of professional codes in fact has become a cottage industry since the 1980s. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has been instrumental in this movement. Under the auspices of its Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility, AAAS initiated a seminal professional ethics project designed to examine the features of and activities associated with codes in the science and engineering professions. The report arising from this effort subsequently generated renewed interest in discussing both code development and revision with many of the professions (Chalk, Frankel and Chafer 1980).

The health/caring professions have long been engaged in discussions of ethical tensions arising from the nature of their professional pursuits. The codes that have evolved have tended, however, to focus on the physician-patient relationship, with concerns about confidentiality being pre-eminent. More recently, perhaps motivated by the growth of applied health research, codes have expanded their attention to include issues pertaining to researcher-patient relationships. Because of population-based research, codes now are addressing concerns for researcher-population relationships. The latter has been aided by the experience of other professions such as sociology, anthropology and statistics.

Many of the caring professions related to the practice of occupational health have been engaged in the discussion of professional ethics. These include: industrial hygiene (Yoder 1982; LaDou 1986); epidemiology (Beauchamp et al. 1991; IEA Workshop on Ethics, Health Policy and Epidemiology 1990; Chemical Manufacturers Association’s Epidemiology Task Group 1991; Council for International Organizations of Medical Sciences 1991, 1993); medicine and numerous of its subspeciality areas, including occupational medicine (Coye 1982; American Occupational Medical Association 1986; International Commission on Occupational Health 1992; Standing Committee of Doctors of the EEC 1980); nursing; toxicology; statistics (International Statistical Institute 1986); psychology; engineering and risk analysis.

In the occupationally specific areas of health services (Guidotti et al. 1989), medicine (Samuels 1992) and health and safety (LaDou 1986), as well as in occupational and environmental health (Rest 1995), relevant portions of professional codes have been abstracted. These presentations serve well the need for furthering discussion in these areas with a view to revising extant codes.

The importance of integrating ethics into the day-to-day activities of professionals is exemplified by these recent texts, which contain appropriately detailed sections on ethics. The professional thereby is reminded that in all aspects of professional practice, all decisions and recommendations have consequences with associated ethical underpinnings.

More recent work on the subject of misconduct in science requires integration into newer texts (Dale 1993; Grandjean and Andersen 1993; Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health 1992; Price 1993; Reed 1989; Sharphorn 1993; Soskolne 1993a; Soskolne 1993b; Soskolne and Macfarlane, 1995; Teich and Frankel 1992). Because one of the fundamental goals of science is the pursuit of truth through objectivity, plagiarism and the fabrication or the falsification of data are counter to the scientific ethic. As the scientific enterprise expands to include more and more scientists, misconduct in science is coming to the attention of the public more frequently. However, it is believed that even in the face of increasing competition and the potential for conflicting interests, the vast majority of those engaged in science do adhere to the principles of truth and objectivity. The frequency of misconduct does, however, remain difficult to assess (Goldberg and Greenberg 1993; Greenberg and Martell 1992; Frankel 1992).

The potential harm to particular scientific efforts as a result of misconduct is one concern. Another concern is the loss of faith by the public in scientists, with consequent reductions in support for the scientific enterprise. The latter has such potentially dire consequences for both science and society that all scientists, and especially students of science, need to be trained in the scientific ethic and reminded of these principles from time to time.

Several case studies serve to demonstrate misconduct (Broad and Wade 1982; Office of Research Integrity 1993; Price 1993; Needleman, Geiger and Frank 1985; Soskolne and Macfarlane, 1995; Swazey, Anderson and Seashore 1993; Soskolne 1991). The determinants of ethical dilemmas are numerous, but one survey among risk analysts in New Jersey (Goldberg and Greenberg 1993) suggests that the two most important causes are “on the job pressure” and “pressure caused by economic implications of result”. The authors of this study noted that possible causes of misconduct include “conflicts of interest, competition with unregulated and unscrupulous competitors, and general lack of individual or societal ethics”. While some codes do address the need for honesty and objectivity in science, the seriousness of current pressures to perform in the presence of apparently declining awareness of societal ethics would dictate that training at all levels include the subject of ethics, values and philosophy. Indeed, the United States Public Health Service requires that universities seeking to obtain research grant support have procedures in place for dealing with and reporting misconduct in science (Reed 1989). Furthermore, university training programmes in public health disciplines must include ethics teaching to qualify for federal funding (Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health 1992).

Normative Nature of Codes

Codes of professional conduct tend to be a narrative description of an assemblage of normative practices. These practices pertain to the moral and ethical standards of a group, be it a professional organization, association or society, having a common skill set in the service of people.

The basis of respective codes has been the so-called Golden Rule, which prescribes that one should do to others what one would have others do to oneself, do one’s level best, and call to the attention of others any act of misconduct.

Approaches to Developing Codes

Most professional organizations have produced codes through the top-down approach, where the elected officials of the profession have undertaken the task. However, as noted earlier (see “Code development, review and revision”), the bottom-up approach is more likely to result in compliance with codes, because grass-roots participation in the process results in a feeling of ownership of the outcome and hence a greater likelihood of compliance. The view that the power brokers of the profession have major influence over the specification of what constitutes appropriate professional conduct could detract from the credibility associated with any resultant code. The more that the “final” code is reflective of community norms, the greater the likelihood that it will be adhered to.

Codes developed by international organizations do have the power of influencing regional groups of people to consider the concerns and statements included in international codes. In this way, regions that have not given attention to the development of codes might be stimulated to do so. Presumably, provided the intent of international codes is limited to a function of providing stimulus, ongoing interaction could serve to iteratively modify and update international codes so that ultimately the international code could well reflect transnational concerns. Care must be exercised to respect regional cultural norms that are not in conflict with, for example, accepted declarations on human rights. Hence, code makers should be sensitive to cultural differences, and not allow their work to homogenize human behaviour; cultural diversity must rather be encouraged.

Mechanisms for Enforcement

Noted earlier was the fact that codes do imply some degree of self-regulation if the expectation of accountability is to have meaning. This would suggest the existence of procedures for investigating allegations of misconduct (or malpractice) of any type, and for correcting conduct deemed professionally inappropriate (Price 1993; Dale 1993; Grandjean and Andersen 1993). In addition, some remedy might be provided for any harms that might have derived from professional misconduct.

The procedures to be invoked in investigations of allegations of misconduct or malpractice must be pre-specified. The maxim of “innocent until proven guilty” should be evident and be seen to be applied. However, because public confidence rests on professional self-regulation, investigations should be dealt with as efficiently as possible with respect for due process at all times (Sharphorn 1993; Soskolne 1993a, b).

The threat of revoking professional licence to practice is one way that the profession has leverage to maximize among its members adherence to any codes. Many professions have no such leverage; their membership is made up of dues-paying individuals with a wide range of qualifications for which regional legislatures have not required licensure as a requirement of membership in the profession. The loss of the right to practice one’s profession therefore is not applicable in many professions as a penalty for misconduct. The only recourse in such instances is that of peer pressure.

Current Issues of Concern to Occupational Health Professionals

It is not within the scope of this article to develop a comprehensive code, but rather to present the process by which codes are developed. It is the intent in so doing to provide motivation for the ongoing discussion of codes (as a component of a broader-based professional ethics programme) and to alert the reader to current issues about which further discussion is needed for the possible inclusion of such resolved matters into revised codes.

As noted by Guidotti et al. (1989), certain issues had been overlooked in codes that existed at that time. These included the virtue of full access to accurate information, and that the burden of risk should not be taken by the worker in the presence of unproved but sound evidence. The question of accurate information and implied truth has associated with it issues of scientific integrity (as referred to in North America) or of scientific dishonesty (as referred to in Denmark) (Andersen et al. 1992; Grandjean and Andersen 1993). Clearly, the pursuit of truth as the main target of scientific endeavour must be reinforced at every opportunity, including its full integration into codes, case study materials and ethics programmes generally (Hall 1993).

With technological advances, the ability grows to more precisely measure biological parameters. For example, biomarkers is one area that opens up a Pandora’s box of ethical issues and resulting tensions that have yet to be addressed in codes. Several such issues have been identified by Ashford (1986) and by Grandjean (1991). Since existing codes were developed prior to the availability on a commercial scale of this technology, codes would serve the occupational health community better if they were updated to provide some guidance on related concerns. To achieve this, explication of such thorny questions as the workers’ right to work in the face of high-risk susceptibility identified through biomarker assays, requires extensive discussion in workshops and conferences specially convened for the purpose. Case study materials would assist in this effort. So profound are the ramifications of biomarker studies that their implications, as well as those related to other potential high technology breakthroughs, could be best addressed through the profession’s continual review of the code.

Because issues such as biomarkers can be difficult to resolve, it may be appropriate for like professions dealing with similar issues to consolidate their efforts and establish mechanisms for exchanging information to assist in the resolution of difficult and challenging related ethical issues. In particular, the need to address the timing for introducing high technology procedures for which ethical considerations have not yet been established also needs to be recognized and addressed by standing committees on ethics for the respective occupational safety and health professions. Other stakeholder groups probably should be included in such deliberations, including the community representatives themselves on whom such studies would be conducted.

In a researcher’s enthusiasm to implement new technological measures into studies for which the ramifications are not fully understood (in the belief that benefit would result), it should be recognized that greater harm than benefit to the subjects of these studies could, in fact, arise (e.g., job loss today is potentially more harmful than the possibility of premature death at some future date). Hence, great caution must be exercised in advance of the implementation of such technologies. Only after due discussion has been exercised by the professional groups having an interest in the use of such technologies, together with a broad range of stakeholder interest groups, should their implementation be considered.

Another current issue involves the notion of data privacy, which is one that returns to the public arena periodically. In the age of computers, the potential exists for linking records created for one purpose with records created for another purpose. Advocates of data privacy have been concerned that records so created could be potentially damaging to individuals. While individual rights to privacy must take precedence over the research needs of the community, the fact that population-based research is uninterested in the data at the individual level must be brought to the attention of the data privacy advocates. In so doing, it should be easy to demonstrate that the public good is better served by allowing appropriately qualified researchers, trained in data processing and confidentiality, access to individual data for population-based research purposes.

Concern about the extension of principlism applied in the physician-patient setting to that of the community-research situation has been noted above (see “Recent history of codes in selected professions”). Vineis and Soskolne (1993) have found that the established principles of autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence and distributive justice are not easily applicable at the societal level. For example, available information about the safety of exposures often is too scanty to allow decisional autonomy; beneficence is considered from the societal viewpoint rather than from that of the individual; and equity is frequently violated. Ethics require careful consideration when defining what is acceptable to society; the simple mathematical formulations used for risk-benefit evaluations cannot be applied directly to individuals. Further development and integration of these ideas are necessary.

In conclusion, codes have a fundamental role to play in the professions. They also could play an important role in safeguarding the common good if they took broader social issues into account. They need to be developed with grass-roots and stakeholder input as part of a broad-based programme of ethics supported by each profession. Codes—including the profession’s core values, the commentary associated with a code and case study materials—must be subjected to a process of periodic review and revision. Now, more than ever, codes are needed not only for professional accountability and self-regulation purposes, but also to help practitioners with the moral and ethical challenges faced by constantly advancing technologies that have implications, amongst others, for the rights and duties of all affected individuals and interest groups. A substantial and challenging task lies ahead.



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