JCB Visiting Scholar Profile: Carolyn Ells

Carolyn Ells

Name: Carolyn Ells, PhD
Visiting From: Montreal, Canada
Period at JCB: September 2016-May 2017


Tell us a little bit about yourself and your work history:


I am a philosopher specializing in bioethics. In my former work as a respiratory therapist, my colleagues and I were frequently frustrated by ethical issues that impinged on our work with patients or our sense of professionalism. We didn’t see anyone using ethics resources to help resolve ethical issues. That motivated me to study bioethics. I wanted to be part of the solution.


When nearing the end of my PhD in philosophy, with a concentration on medical ethics (University of Tennessee Knoxville), I joined the faculty at Dalhousie University to coordinate a project that provided ethics, health law, and policy supports to hospitals in Halifax. In 2002, I took up a tenure-stream appointment at McGill University and for the next 9 years combined academic responsibilities with being a part-time ethics consultant at the Jewish General Hospital. This was very rewarding, but to achieve a better work-life balance I finally decided to leave the hospital and base myself full-time at the university’s Biomedical Ethics Unit. I organize regular mentoring and networking meetings for the ethics consultants working at institutions affiliated with McGill.


At McGill, I teach a graduate course on Bioethical Theory and supervise students in our Masters Specialization in Bioethics program and direct the ethics and health law courses in McGill’s undergraduate medical education program. During my career I’ve chaired and co-chaired a variety of research ethics boards. I am currently the Chair of the Interagency Panel on Research Ethics, which advices the presidents of CIHR, NSERC, and SSHRC on research ethics issues and policy, including the evolution of the Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans. I am an active member of the International Network on Feminist Approaches to Bioethics (FAB), and served on its Advisory Board in several capacities for 15 years.


My research has always had clinical ethics and research ethics foci. In clinical ethics, I am currently engaged in making contributions to patient-centered care theory and practice. In research ethics, I focus on research ethics policy and review processes.


What will you be doing or working on during your visit to the JCB?


My current funded research involves developing and testing an instrument to assess the elements of patient-centered care in patient-physician telemedicine consultations. Patient-centered care is now recognized as a clinical method and ideal model for patient – health professional relationships. Yet much of the quality literature on patient-centered care focuses on structural and institution-level practices that influence the potential to individualize patient care experience. Colleagues in telemedicine approached me to help develop a patient-centered care theoretically-informed instrument to assess quality individualized patient care in teleconsultations. This provided an opportunity to focus greater ethics attention to what patient-centered care means at the level of the therapeutic relationship, within a telemedicine context. The project is underway and I aim to complete it during my sabbatical, including preparing manuscripts for publication.


I am also collaborating with a bioethics colleague, Lori d’Agincourt-Canning, to prepare a proposal for an edited book on ethical issues in women’s health care. We have discussed this for a few years and finally we both have time to do it. Many of the topics in the book are ones that we encountered in our work as clinical ethics consultants. It is exciting to be working on a book project that will bring more ethics attention to issues of women’s health care.


A third project involves considering how to ethically manage incidental findings that arise during research. This is one of many pressing issues where research ethics policy has yet to be developed.


The bioethics seminars and other activities at JCB, and across the campus, provide many opportunities for professional development and networking. I am attending many of these while I am here.


What made you want to come to the JCB to do the work?


The people and the hub. There is a wonderful group of scholars, ethics consultants, clinicians, and trainees who are affiliated with the JCB and participate in its programs and activities. Some I meet at Canadian Bioethics Society meetings or similar fora, or through their published work. I am curious to get to know them better and perhaps develop collaborations. The JCB is also situated within the Dalla Lana School of Public Health and in close proximity to other centres, schools, and individuals engaged with work related to my interests, including those involved with practice and research on ethics and patient-centered care.


Is there anything that you're looking forward to doing in Toronto (for example any places you want to visit, or food you want to try)?


When my spouse and daughter come to visit, I will enjoy showing them the city and taking them to the Bata Shoe Museum. They will be thrilled if their visit coincides with a Habs-Leafs hockey game.


Thanks, Carolyn! We're happy to have you with us at the JCB.


If you would like to get in touch with Carolyn, please email her at