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Provincial Health Ethics Network, Alberta, Canada

The Provincial Health Ethics Network is a non-profit, non-partisan society that aims to promote discussion and action on ethical issues in health and health care. Unique in its mandate, size and scope in Canada (and possibly the world), it is funded primarily by the provincial government and regional health authorities of the province of Alberta, Canada. It acts as a resource centre on health ethics, providing educational offerings and easy access to bioethics books, articles and videos for informing others and generating dialogue. The network works closely with the university-based health/medical ethics centres in the province to bridge the traditional gap between academia and those providing or accessing health care and to engage members of the public in informed dialogue about bioethics issues of relevance to all. Members of the network, of which there are approximately 250, span the gamut from members of the public to nurses, physicians, allied health care workers and administrators.

The Network also serves as a coordinating body for ethics committees and those involved in clinical ethics services in the province. Currently, there are approximately 35 clinical ethics committees in Alberta, a province with a population of 3 million. The distribution of the committees is roughly analogous to that of the population – one-third in the city of Calgary, one-third in the city of Edmonton, and the rest in smaller centres. The clinical ethics committees are based in hospitals, continuing care centres/nursing homes, or, in most rural areas, serve an entire health region rather than one healthcare facility. While there exists no legislation in Canada requiring health care organizations to establish clinical ethics committees, the standards for accreditation of healthcare institutions - which most organizations voluntarily undergo - strongly recommend that processes and structures be in place to provide consultation and education on health ethics issues. The clinical ethics committees are at various stages in their development; some have existed for almost 30 years but have variously floundered and been rejuvenated over the years, and many have only recently (past 2-3 years) been established and are still finding their proper role and place within the ever-changing world of healthcare. Common issues addressed by the clinical ethics committees include withdrawal of life-supporting therapy, patients and residents living at risk, demands for care that are deemed inappropriate by care providers (so-called ‘futility), allocation of scarce health resources, and decision-making for minors or non-competent patients. There are eight individuals in the province who work, part or full-time, as ethicists or ethics service coordinators, based either in acute care institutions, universities, or with the Network, and provide support to various ethics committees, individuals and health organizations.

All are welcome to visit the Network’s website at www.phen.ab.ca for more information.

Al-Noor Nenshi Nathoo
Executive Director and Southern Alberta Coordinator
Provincial Health Ethics Network, Alberta, Canada