A Survey of Medical Ethics Education at U.S. and Canadian Medical Schools

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Abstract

Purpose.

To assess the format, content, method, and placement of medical ethics education in medical schools; the faculty and curricular resources and institutional structure and support of medical ethics; and the perceptions of ethics education among deans of medical education and medical ethics course directors at U.S. and Canadian medical schools.

Method.

Two questionnaires were mailed to 125 U.S. medical schools and 16 Canadian schools: one to be completed by the deans of medical education and one to be completed by the medical ethics course director. Descriptive statistics were used to compare responses.

Results.

In all, 123 (87%) deans and 91 (64%) course directors responded, providing information about 91 schools (six Canadian). All responding institutions offered some formal instruction in medical ethics, and among these, 71 (78%) incorporated ethics into required preclinical courses. The primary pedagogic course structure was small-group discussion and the primary pedagogic method was case discussions. One-fifth of schools provided no funding for ethics teaching, and 47 (52%) did not fund curricular development in ethics. Institutions with a dedicated ethics faculty member were twice as likely to have a mandatory introductory ethics course (64% versus 32%, p < .05). The primary obstacles to ethics education were thought to be a lack of time in the curriculum, a lack of qualified teachers, and a lack of time in faculty schedules.

Conclusions.

Within a few decades the number of U.S. and Canadian medical schools requiring medical ethics has increased. Nevertheless, significant variation in the content, method, and timing of ethics education suggests consensus about curricular content and pedagogic methods remains lacking. Further progress in ethics education may depend on institutions’ willingness to devote more curricular time and funding to medical ethics.

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