Associate Professor Rosalind McDougall: Embedding Compassion in Health Ethics

Dr Rosalind McDougall is an Associate Professor in Health Ethics in the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health and the Department of Surgery. She has expertise in philosophical bioethics and qualitative research.

How did you come to work in this area?

“My background, perhaps a bit unusual for MDHS, is in philosophy. I was an undergraduate student at the University of Melbourne, where I completed a double degree with majors in genetics and philosophy. I was interested in the intersection between those two areas and looking at ethical issues around genetic technologies.

“I continued my studies at the University of Oxford, where I commenced my Masters in Philosophy and furthered my interest in moral philosophy and ethics. When I completed my masters, I was eager to do more practical kinds of ethics work. Although I love theoretical debates, I’m interested in practical ethical questions in healthcare including the kinds of ethical issues that practitioners face on the ground.

“I returned to Melbourne and completed my PhD at the University of Melbourne, which used a mix of qualitative research methods and ethical analysis. I interviewed junior doctors about the ethical challenges they face in their first few years of practice in hospitals, and that’s been the style of my work since. I have completed an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) fellowship, and I now teach Ethics in the Master of Public Health. The teaching aspect is a big part of my role, which I really enjoy.”

Which of the MDHS Faculty’s values speaks the most to you and why?

“In my view, compassion is really important in the teaching and learning context at the university. Having a compassionate approach to each other in class as students and teachers is really important, particularly in ethics where we talk about many sensitive issues that have touched people in their own lives. I believe we can be rigorous and robust with ideas but gentle with each other as people in the classroom, and that’s an effective way to approach teaching and learning.

“I try and teach the students that as part of being an ethical practitioner, how you discuss ethical issues is just as important as the content of your ethical decisions. So, for me, compassion is a key value in my work.”

How are you embedding the MDHS Faculty values and standards into your own work?

“Compassion is important in all areas of our work, but particularly in teaching and learning ethics. It’s important not just for me as a teacher but for all the students in the room to recognise that everyone there is a human being with a history and that many topics we talk about potentially interact with people’s own experiences.

“I like to teach my students a way of talking about ethical issues that is compassionate and that it’s not just about the content of your decision but how you talk about the issue and engage with people. It’s important to model and build this concept in the classroom so it’s a caring community. Even though it’s a caring community, we’re rigorous and robust and debating ideas. It’s a community ‘figuring things out’ together.

“Outside of the teaching environment, I have been working with colleagues–clinicians and ethicists–on a project that looks at the ethics of visitor restrictions in hospitals. Compassion is important when we think about findings that balance public health measures like visitor restrictions.

“In our work, we have been developing an approach that asks what are the features of an ethical restriction policy? And how can we do our best to address the needs of all the different stakeholders here and make sure that everyone is looked after to the greatest extent possible?

“Although compassion isn’t an explicit part of that research, a compassionate approach is what sits behind it and thinking about these regulations in a broad ethical way.”

As told to Anna Furze.