Professor Rosamond Rhodes, Biomedical Ethicist, Publishes Book Aimed at Challenging Long-Dominant Views in the Field

Rosamond Rhodes and the cover of her book, "The Trusted Doctor" (Photos courtesy of Rhodes)

This spring, Professor Rosamond Rhodes (Ph.D. ’90, Philosophy), who is also a professor of medical education at Mount Sinai, published her latest book, The Trusted Doctor: Medical Ethics and Professionalism — a topic that seems particularly timely, given the current attention to and pressures on the health care industry. The book, aimed at both medical professionals and the general public, presents a radical challenge to the views that have dominated bioethics for more than four decades.

Rhodes would know. She is co-chair of the ethics committee at Mount Sinai, where she has trained residents, genetic counselors, and graduate students in public health and clinical research for the past 32 years. She received her Ph.D. in philosophy from The Graduate Center in 1990, and since then has mentored close to 30 Graduate Center philosophy students. All of her students who completed their programs have found jobs, ranging from postdoctoral fellowships at New York University to a position comparable to her own at the CUNY School of Medicine. 

The experiences and knowledge she has accumulated over the course of her career led Rhodes to write The Trusted Doctor, which argues that the ethics of medicine must be different from everyday ethics. For example, doctors are bound by strict confidentiality in areas where others are under no such obligation; likewise, medicine often involves administering treatments that pose the risk of great harm, including death, which under different circumstances would be unconscionable. “Medical ethics is an uncommon morality,” Rhodes says. “It’s not the same as everyday ethics.”

Her book is full of clinical examples, also derived from her extensive experience giving ethics consultations — as she is continuing to do, remotely, during the coronavirus pandemic. When doctors or medical teams face an ethics problem, they ask for a consult, which can take the form of a meeting by a patient’s bedside to a full committee discussion. A recent case involved a patient with a brain tumor who had psychiatric issues including paranoia; the patient’s family sought to have her restrained and treated against her will. Rhodes and the ethics consult team advised against forced treatment because, given the patient’s lack of willingness for follow-ups, the treatment would provide little benefit and forced treatment requires a court order that would likely be denied.

Rhodes became interested in the field of medical ethics while she was a student at The Graduate Center and a grant enabled her and a professor to co-teach a course at Mount Sinai. As the grant was ending, Mount Sinai decided to launch its own bioethics program, and hired Rhodes to start it. Rhodes, who grew up in Alphabet City and earned her B.A. from City College and her master’s degree from Lehman, credits CUNY and The Graduate Center for giving her the teaching experience and education in the history of moral and political philosophy that helped her flourish at Mount Sinai.

Over the years, she has built up the Mount Sinai department, which now includes two other professors (both Graduate Center alumni), as well as five Graduate Center Ph.D. students who are currently serving as ethics fellows. “I like putting people on the right track,” Rhodes says. “I can’t resist critiquing and editing — I guess that comes with the baggage of being a philosopher — and I also take great pride in the accomplishments of the people who come through out program.”

She had a strong mentor herself: James L. Muyskens, who this month is finishing out his term as The Graduate Center’s interim president. “He was for me the perfect choice of mentor,” Rhodes says. Her dissertation was on Thomas Hobbes; she later served as sovereign of the International Hobbes Association for five years. Muyskens “wasn’t a Hobbes scholar — I think he’s more Hume than Hobbes — but he was gentle and supportive and he could give me criticism that I could take without thinking, What am I doing?”

For his part, Muyskens takes pride in Rhodes’ accomplishments, from her many scholarly contributions to her latest book. “The Trusted Doctor is a major contribution to bioethics, and captures so beautifully Rosamond’s humanity, her exceptional ability to write clearly and persuasively, while boldly challenging entrenched views,” he says. “One of the great joys of graduate education is being able to follow with pride the careers of those you mentored, and following Rosamond’s stellar career has been especially rewarding and exciting.” 

Submitted on: JUL 27, 2020

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