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Utah doctor makes impact on world of medical ethics

When residents came to Dr. Jay Jacobson with questions, he noticed that they weren't always asking about diseases and treatment. Instead, they wondered whether they had to treat a patient with AIDS if they feared exposure. Or how many resources they should expend when they were treating someone with a terminal disease, like advanced cancer.

They were questions without straight medical answers. They revolved around the ethics of medical care. And he didn't know much about it. Medical ethics wasn't commonly discussed then.Times have changed. Jacobson, who has background in treatment of infectious diseases, is still a professor of internal medicine. But he's also chief of the Division of Medical Ethics at LDS Hospital and the University of Utah School of Medicine.

And his impact in the world of medicine has been so great that the Center for the Study of Ethics at Utah Valley State College has selected Jacobson as recipient of the fourth annual "Excellence in Ethics" award, to be presented Oct. 20.

Previous award winners are Michael Zimmerman, chief justice of the Utah Supreme Court; Irene Fisher, director of the Lowell C. Bennion Center at the University of Utah; and the late Delmont Oswalt, who was executive director of the Utah Humanities Council.

The residents' questions opened his eyes to the serious need for a discussion of ethics and medicine. Then, in 1988, the University of Chicago offered training in the topic.

"I didn't learn the answer to the residents' questions, by the way," he laughs. "But I learned ways to think about them."

Now he's helping others think in those terms as well. He's banded together with ethical experts from the U. College of Law, College of Humanities and the School of Medicine to set up the division program he directs. They provide speakers, thought-provoking discussions and practical assistance in times of ethical dilemma. The division also offers clinical consultation, research and education about medical ethics to individuals and organizations and physicians in training and practice.

And he's quick to point out that he doesn't believe the award belongs just to him. It is a tribute to "all the great people" who help him provide an ethics education to residents and others who are beginning their medical careers.

The award is presented each year by the board of the Center for the Study of Ethics to a Utahn who "displays exemplary ethics in his or her life," said Elaine Englehardt, director of the center.