Leigh Turner, director of UC Irvine’s Center for Health Ethics
“Our focus encompasses not only clinical ethics but also broader societal issues such as economic structures, social inequalities and the erosion of public trust in healthcare institutions,” says Leigh Turner, director of UC Irvine’s Center for Health Ethics. Steve Zylius / UC Irvine

On April 15, UC Irvine launched the Center for Health Ethics, a critical effort to mobilize public health researchers and scholars across campus in addressing a range of challenging, health-related ethical issues and informing contemporary societal debates. Established as a school-based center supported by the campus’s Program in Public Health, it’s directed by Leigh Turner, professor of health, society and behavior.

The 40-plus founding faculty members are from all schools within the Susan & Henry Samueli College of Health Sciences along with the School of Biological Sciences, the School of Humanities, the School of Social Ecology and the School of Social Sciences – with about half of them based in the Program in Public Health.

“In the past few decades, health ethics has become an important, highly debated health policy and public health issue. Our Center for Health Ethics members will take on many of the toughest questions going on in the healthcare space right now and, ultimately, propose solutions that will improve health outcomes for all populations,” says Bernadette Boden-Albala, director of the Program in Public Health and founding dean of the proposed School of Population and Public Health.

Turner expects the center to address the moral and policy aspects of health, healthcare, medicine, public health and health-related technologies, including such topics as health equity and health disparities, structural injustices and their relationship to the health of communities, responsible health communication, and the ethics of health research.

“I want the UCI Center for Health Ethics to play an integral role in bringing critical and informed perspectives to a broad range of ethical issues. In particular, I hope to support its members in contributing to scholarship and developing new health ethics research initiatives while informing public conversations and policy debates,” he says. Including diverse perspectives and welcoming input from a variety of academic disciplines, theoretical frameworks, methodological approaches and personal experiences are crucial to these goals, Turner adds.

In reference to developments in stem cell research, gene editing, artificial intelligence and machine learning, and other fields, he emphasizes the need for thoughtful ethical analyses that include consideration of the broader societal, legal and policy implications of such technologies: “I envision the UCI Center for Health Ethics as a place where my colleagues and I will work to explore ethical, legal and social dimensions of emerging technologies in a nuanced and informed manner, avoiding both hyperbole and fear-mongering.”

According to Turner, the center will also promote collaborations among researchers across multiple disciplines studying and addressing health-related misinformation and disinformation and identifying practical strategies to foster responsible health communication. “We have numerous researchers here at UCI who are doing important work examining various facets of health-related misinformation and disinformation – and considering what we mean when we use such terms. This work has significant ethical implications,” he says.

A central necessity when it comes to mitigating the public’s frustration with the current healthcare system, Turner notes, is reforming both it and the pharmaceutical industry. He describes healthcare as being increasingly oriented around cutting costs, increasing profits and monetizing all facets of medical care. “Institutions such as palliative care facilities are bought out by private equity [firms] and then squeezed for profits,” Turner elaborates. “Clinicians are put under pressure to see more and more patients with less and less time to provide meaningful care. And patients receive outrageous medical bills and have to turn to GoFundMe and other crowdfunding platforms to avoid medical debt and possible health-related bankruptcy.”

Meanwhile, hospitals – including some academic medical centers – operate in highly competitive healthcare markets and use debt collection agencies to go after patients with unpaid and unaffordable medical bills. Transforming this system is among the larger policy challenges confronting the U.S., but Turner believes UC Irvine has the publicly engaged scholars needed to inform societal discourse and promote change.

“One way in which I would like the Center for Health Ethics to address these issues is to make sure it’s contributing to fundamental conversations about who we want to be, what kind of society we want to build for one another, and what it means for humans to live in particular communities,” he says.

If you want to learn more about supporting the Center for Health Ethics or other UC Irvine initiatives, please visit the Brilliant Future website at https://brilliantfuture.uci.edu. The Brilliant Future campaign aims to raise awareness and support for UC Irvine. The planned School of Population and Public Health plays a vital role in the success of the campaign. Learn more by visiting https://brilliantfuture.uci.edu/school-of-population-and-public-health.