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  • Teaching Ethics in the Health Care Setting Part I:Survey of the Literature
  • Mary Carrington Coutts (bio)

The last twenty years have brought important changes to health care and health care education. Educators and students alike face an enormous number of new fields of study and new medical technologies. Health care professionals and institutions are also facing new challenges in the form of shrinking economic resources, and the AIDS epidemic. They must also respond to increased patient participation in health care decisions, and public concern about abortion and euthanasia. These challenges to the health care professional have compelled educators to accommodate ethics within their already overcrowded curriculum. Those same dilemmas have influenced health care institutions to become active in health care ethics education.

Medical ethics education gained a foothold in the United States during the late 1960s, when the medical schools of Pennsylvania State University, the University of Florida, and the State University of New York at Stonybrook established programs in the humanities (Pellegrino 1982). In 1978 Robert Veatch noted that formal teaching in medical ethics was rare; most institutions that taught medical ethics used "informal instruction in the apprenticeship mode" (Veatch 1978). However, by 1982 a survey by the American Medical Association (AMA) revealed that all but one of the 127 medical schools had courses that included medical ethics. Thirty eight of these had medical ethics as a required course (Pellegrino 1985). And by 1989, 43 of the 127 medical schools had separate courses in medical ethics, while 100 covered medical ethics within required courses. Medical ethics is now an accepted part of medical curriculum, though it is not fully mature, and its future remains somewhat unclear (Miles 1989).

The evolution of ethics in the nursing curriculum has essentially mirrored that of the medical curriculum. A 1977 survey of baccalaureate nursing programs revealed that only 7 percent of nursing programs required courses in ethics [End Page 171] (Aroskar 1977). A decade later a second survey of undergraduate programs identified 85 percent of responding nursing schools as teaching nursing ethics either in separate ethics courses or within other required courses (Cassells and Redman 1989).

Though the precise future of health care ethics may be unpredictable, there is little thought that the role of ethics will diminish in importance as the 21st century approaches. Ethics is seen as part of a larger plan to develop and enhance the health professional's human values, social conscience, and interpersonal skills. "This broader effort derives from concerns about the personal attributes and humanistic sensitivity of physicians, the recent overly 'scientized' trend in premedical education, the selection of medical students, and the socialization and cynicism engendered by medical education" (Miles 1989, p. 705).

While nearly every medical and nursing school in the United States now teaches ethics in one form or another, the degree to which ethics is integrated into the curriculum varies from school to school. Some ethics courses are required elements of the students' education; some institutions require attendance at seminars and ethics grand rounds. Other schools offer an array of elective courses in topics that relate to ethics in medicine and nursing (including medical humanities, medicine and the law, literature and medicine, history of medicine, patient advocacy, and human values in nursing.) "Brown bag" seminars and journal clubs are also common.

There is much debate over how health care ethics should be taught. Some argue that medical professionals should be conversant with theories of ethics and principles of biomedical ethics. Others think that a theoretical approach will alienate already over-worked medical or nursing students, and that instruction in ethical theory should be kept to a minimum. Case studies are frequently cited as a way to involve students in medical decision making, forcing them to analyze problems that they can relate to their own experiences.

Additional concerns center around who should teach health care ethics. Frequently, physicians and nurses interested in ethics teach courses. Some commentators see this as the most desirable arrangement, asserting that practicing health care professionals best understand the conflicts faced by physicians and nurses-in-training. However, there is a growing pool of professionals who are undergoing training as medical ethicists. These individuals study ethical theory and bioethical...


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