Are medical students ethically illiterate?

A recent study has indicated that medical students are not retaining the ethical terms taught to them in ethics classes. The report, published in the journal AJOB Primary Research, involved interviews with 109 students of the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine.

The students, all third years, were asked about the ethical terminology taught to them in first and second year. Many could remember the four basic ethical principles they were taught (beneficence, non-maleficence, respect for patient autonomy and justice), but few could remember the six sources of ethical value or categories for justifying an ethical decision (ethical principles, rights, consequences, comparable cases, professional guidelines and conscientious practice). Overall, 59.6% of the students remembered all four principles, but the highest number of sources of ethical value recalled was four of the six. Only 10% of students could name three or four of the six sources.

Researchers also found that students were not likely to use the terms they had learned when asked to reflect on ethical situations they had encountered.

Many experts believe that there needs to be more ethical education at a practical clinical level if students are to retain the information. “I would really encourage [faculties] to think about how to integrate ethical education also into the clinical realm,” said Dr Lauris Kaldjian, principal author and director of bioethics and humanities at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine.

One question yet to be answered is whether the concepts, not just the terminology, have been lost on the students. 

This article is published by Xavier Symons and BioEdge.org under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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