Dr Harriet Etheredge

Bioethicist, health communication specialist

Now a post-doctoral research fellow based at the Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre, Harriet Etheredge focuses on bioethics and health communication research. At its core, healthcare is about people and interaction, and this makes her research essential in improving the way patients are treated in South Africa.

Etheredge (31) did her undergraduate studies at Rhodes and her master’s degree at Wits. She has a PhD in health communication and has focused her work on two areas currently affected by the need for practical implementation of ethics and communication – organ transplants and oncology. “In organ donation, there are widespread misconceptions among the public and even challenges within the healthcare system,” she says. “For example, organ retrieval must take place quickly and efficiently, but ensuring the entire multi-disciplinary transplant network is in place when it is needed, and overcoming hesitance among nursing staff attending the organ retrieval, can be a challenge.”

In oncology, her research has found that patients need to have more detailed information about their day-to-day treatment, what to expect and even why their treatment is being administered. Etheredge is working on implementing a patient diary, providing patients with detailed information on what to expect from their treatment every day, giving them some control over how to plan their days around treatment.

Etheredge is the youngest member of the Wits Human Research Ethics Committee (Medical), tasked with reviewing proposed clinical research projects and clinical trials based on their ethical and legal merit, which helps protect vulnerable populations in South Africa.

Medical ethics as a subject is often seen as tedious and mainly theoretical, she says. “While healthcare practitioners all agree on the need for ethical practice, the practical application of codes of ethics is not always clearly laid out.”

She hopes to address gaps between the theory and the practice, improve communications among everyone involved in medical treatment, develop models to promote patient-centred care, ensure that the doctor-patient relationship is entrenched in consultations, and make sure that patients have a feeling of autonomy.

Etheredge regularly gives talks on ethics. “My aim is to make ethics practical for students, pharmaceutical companies, medical aids and health professionals, so that they will put communications and ethics into practice. This should enhance patient care and legally sound practices,” she says.

Believing firmly in work-life balance, Etheredge spends her free time with her fiancée and pet Labrador, and enjoys climbing, reading and cookery.

Twitter: @HarrietEther