The Ministry of Health is currently seeking candidates to be nominated to its seven new ethics committees. The seven new Ministry of Health ethics committees replace the independent ethics committees that were established in the wake of the Cartwright Report.
The AWHC received an email from the Ministry on August 5th 2004, the day of 16th anniversary of the release of the Cartwright Report. On this day Council members and others gathered as usual at the statue of peace in front of National Women’s Hospital to remember the women who died as a result of the unfortunate experiment at NWH, to reflect on what has happened to the recommendations in the Cartwright Report, and to dedicate ourselves anew to the battle to hang on to the gains that were made.
The irony of getting an email on this particular day asking the Council to “forward this information out to your networks and/or nominate suitable candidates” to one of these committees was not lost on our members. What has been happening to our independent ethics committees is an issue that has been of considerable concern to the AWHC for some time.
For a start, the Minister of Health gets to choose who will be appointed to these “independent” ethics committees. This represents an unacceptable compromise to the independence of the committees.
The seven committees the Ministry is seeking candidates for are a multi-region Ethics Committee, a Northern X and a Northern Y Regional Ethics Committee which will be based in Auckland and Hamilton, a central Regional Ethics Committee based in Wellington, an Upper South A and an Upper South B Regional Ethics Committees which will be based in Christchurch, and a Lower South Regional Ethics Committee based in Dunedin.
Each committee has 12 members half of whom must be lay people. The lay membership must include “an ethicist, a lawyer, people with consumer perspectives and people with community perspectives.” I guess this means consumer representatives need not apply! The non-lay membership must include two health researchers, two health practitioners, a biostatistician and a pharmacist or pharmacologist. Each committee will also have at least two Maori members who “should have a recognised awareness of te reo Maori and an understanding of tikanga Maori.”
Maurice Austin who is the current and soon-to-be-dispensed-with chairperson of the West Coast Ethics Committee commented recently in the Greymouth Evening Star that “consumers could be forgiven if they feel like pawns on a chess board in the midst of all this. They are caught in the endless competing struggles where the interests of policy planers, health researchers, and health practitioners variously prevail and whom assert they each know best what is good for us and how to deliver it.”
The call for ethics committees to be placed within the office of the Health and Disability Commissioner is now growing louder. It is a move that the AWHC has supported and argued for in numerous submissions made over many years. Maurice Austin believes there should be an investigation into this possibility. “This move would align with the expectations of the general public that the work of the HDC office is focused on protecting the interests of health and disability consumers and that it is seen to be independent from potential Ministerial interference,” he said. “Such a shift would also assist considerably to retain some degree of public confidence that one of the best ethical review systems in the world is not about to be completely dismantled with barely an audible sigh.”