Ben Rich, UC Davis bioethics professor
Ben Rich, UC Davis bioethics professor, grabbed the chance nearly 20 years ago to transition from work as a successful attorney to the world of academia. Now in his new role as holder of the UC Davis School of Medicine Alumni Association Endowed Chair of Bioethics, students and faculty will continue to benefit from his experience and expertise in law, medicine and ethics.
"There's a strong flavor of advocacy in the way I address bioethical issues," he explains. "I guess you can take the lawyer out of the courtroom, but not the courtroom out of the lawyer."
Sense of social justice
Rich gravitated toward law in his first career because of his strong sense of social justice. After receiving his law degree from Washington University in St. Louis, he gained experience in North Carolina as a civil litigation and health law specialist, an administrative law judge, legal counsel to two academic medical centers in North Carolina and Colorado, and general counsel for the University of Colorado system.
He began to think seriously about a second career as a university professor after he started teaching health law at the University of Colorado School of Law in 1988.
"The most interesting, challenging and stimulating topics I taught in that course always had to do with bioethics," he recalls. "It became clear to me that where I wanted to be in academia was dealing with critical issues in biomedical ethics and bringing my legal background to bear on these dilemmas."
To seal his decision, he pursued a doctorate in philosophy at the university, while still teaching in the law school, medical school and bioethics in the philosophy department. After receiving his doctorate in 1995, he became the assistant director and assistant professor in the program in health care ethics, humanities and law at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center.
Focus on terminally ill
While a doctoral student, he became deeply interested in the ethics of patient autonomy in the care of the elderly and pain management for patients with grave and terminal illnesses.
"The closest link to my prior professional life as an attorney has to do with a strong predilection of mine that we need to make respect for individual patient autonomy a high priority in the way health-care professionals relate to patients and the human subjects of our research," he says.
"I think it's a moral outrage when people have serious pain and it's not addressed consistently with the current ability of the health professions to relieve it. There's an ethical and legal issue here – it's not merely a clinical deficiency."
Rich has since become a specialist in the ethical, legal and regulatory dimensions of pain management and end-of-life care. He has lectured and published extensively on the topics of informed consent, advance directives, and end-of-life care. He is also widely consulted on issues such as physician aid-in-dying and stem cell research.
He joined the UC Davis faculty in 2000 after being recruited by professor Erich Loewy, who was the first to hold the endowed chair. Rich currently holds joint academic appointments in the departments of Internal Medicine and Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine and is a visiting professor at the UC Davis School of Law.
An integrated bioethics curriculum
Among his goals for the Bioethics Program as the endowed chair are to recruit a second full-time faculty member for the bioethics program, to have ethics featured prominently in all four years of curriculum for medical students, to collaborate on research with other university schools and departments, and to endow a lecture series to bring prominent bioethicists to UC Davis each year.
"I want bioethics at UC Davis to be a critical part of the various missions of the School of Medicine and the health system," he says. "It has always been part of the vision that bioethics become an integral aspect of the life of the university."