Psychologists are uniquely trained to be successful bioethicists, say several psychologists who work in the bioethics field.

As evidence, they point to a 1998 report from the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities that highlighted essential traits for effective bioethicists. They include:

  • Compassion--assessing interpersonal dynamics, listening and communicating empathy.

"Psychologists can understand the emotional dilemmas," says Andrea Farkas Patenaude, PhD, director of psycho-oncology research in the division of pediatric oncology at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. "We have the ability to be able to stay in a difficult circumstance and encourage understanding."

  • Courage--stepping into emotionally complicated issues and facilitating effective communication.

"Clinical and counseling psychologists could play a large role because many bioethical issues are family dynamics issues," says Adrienne Asch, PhD, the Henry R. Luce professor in biology, ethics and the politics of human reproduction at Wellesley College.

  • Forthrightness--clearly communicating the hospital staff's views to families and vice versa.

"The psychologist can see issues other people don't see," such as how high-risk treatment might affect children emotionally, or why children may refuse or want to stop treatment, explains Mary Jo Kupst, PhD, a professor of pediatrics at the Medical College of Wisconsin and the president of Div. 54 (Society of Pediatric Psychology).

  • Integrity--helping people analyze their assumptions, decisions and consequences.

"Organizational psychologists can look at the power relationships in hospital settings among medical teams, physicians and social workers" to find the best way for them to interact with minimal bias, explains Wellesley's Asch.