Ethics Consultations Related to Opioid Use Disorder

Published in: Psychosomatics, Volume 61, Issue 2, pages 161–170 (March–April 2020). doi: 10.1016/j.psym.2019.10.003

Posted on on September 03, 2020

by Julia Bandini, Andrew M. Courtwright, Emily Rubin, Kimberly S. Erler, Mary Zwirner, M. Cornelia Cremens, Thomas H. McCoy, Ellen M. Robinson

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The opioid epidemic has resulted in an increased number of patients with opioid use disorder (OUD) hospitalized for serious medical conditions. The intersection between hospital ethics consultations and the opioid crisis has not received significant attention.


The aim of this study was to characterize ethics consult questions among inpatients with OUD at our institution, Massachusetts General Hospital.


We conducted a single-center retrospective cohort study of ethics consultations from January 1, 1993 to December 31, 2017 at Massachusetts General Hospital.


Between 1993 and 2017, OUD played a central role in ethics consultations in 43 of 1061 (4.0%) cases. There was an increase in these requests beginning in 2009, rising from 1.4% to 6.8% of consults by 2017. Compared with other ethics cases, individuals with OUD were significantly younger (P < 0.001), more likely to be uninsured or underinsured (P < 0.001), and more likely to have a comorbid mental health diagnosis (P = 0.001). The most common reason for consultation involved continuation of life-sustaining treatment in the setting of overdose with neurological injury or severe infection. Additional reasons included discharge planning, challenges with pain management and behavior, and the appropriateness of surgical intervention, such as repeat valve replacement or organ transplant. Health care professionals struggled with their ethical obligations to patients with OUD, including when to treat pain with narcotics and how to provide longitudinal care for patients with limited resources outside of the hospital.


The growing opioid epidemic corresponds with a rise in ethics consultations for patients with OUD. Similar factors associated with OUD itself, including comorbid mental health diagnoses and concerns about relapse, contributed to the ethical complexities of these consults.

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