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Ethics Education in U.S. Medical Schools’ Curricula

By Leah Pierson

I recently argued that we need to evaluate medical school ethics curricula. Here, I explore how ethics courses became a key component of medical education and what we do know about them.

The rise of ethics education

Although ethics had been a recognized component of medical practice since Hippocrates’ time, ethics education is a more recent innovation. In the 1970s, the medical community was shaken by several high-profile lawsuits alleging unethical behavior by physicians. As medical care advanced — and categories like “brain death” emerged — doctors found themselves facing challenging new dilemmas and old ones more often. In response to this, in 1977, The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine became the first medical school to incorporate ethics education into its curriculum. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, medical schools increasingly began to incorporate ethics education into their curricula. By 2002, approximately 79 percent of U.S. medical schools offered a formal ethics course. Today, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) includes “adherence to ethical principles” among the competencies required of medical school graduates. As a result, all U.S. medical schools — and many medical schools around the world — require ethics training.

What do medical school ethics courses look like?

There is some consensus on the content ethics courses should cover. The AAMC requires medical school graduates to “demonstrate a commitment to ethical principles pertaining to provision or withholding of care, confidentiality, informed consent.” Correspondingly, most medical school ethics courses review issues related to consent, end-of-life care, and confidentiality. But beyond this, the scope of these courses varies immensely (in part because many combine teaching in ethics and professionalism, and there is little consensus on what “professionalism” means).

The format and design of medical school ethics courses also varies. A wide array of pedagogical approaches are employed: most rely on some combination of lectures, case-based learning, and small group discussions. But others employ readings, debates, or simulations with standardized patients. These courses also receive differing degrees of emphasis within medical curricula, with some schools spending less than a dozen hours on ethics education and others spending hundreds. (Notably, much of the research on the state of ethics education in U.S. medical schools is nearly twenty years old, though there is little reason to suspect that ethics education has converged during that time, given that medical curricula have in many ways become more diverse.)

Finally, what can seem like consensus in approaches to ethics education can mask underlying differences. For instance, although many medical schools describe their ethics courses as “integrated,” schools mean different things by this (e.g., in some cases “integrated” means “interdisciplinary,” and in other cases it means “incorporated into other parts of the curriculum”).

Do these courses work?

In short, we don’t know.

A study from this year reviewed evidence on interventions aimed at improving ethical decision-making in clinical practice. The authors identified eight studies of medical students. Of these, five used written tools to evaluate students’ ethical reasoning and decision-making, while three assessed students’ interactions with standardized patients or used objective structured clinical examinations (OSCEs). Three of these eight studies assessed U.S. students, the most recent of which was published in 1998. These studies found mixed results. One study found that an ethics course led recipients to engage in more thorough — but not necessarily better — reasoning, while another found that evaluators disagreed so often that it was nearly impossible to achieve consensus about students’ performances.

The authors of a 2017 review assessing the effectiveness of ethics education note that it is hard to draw conclusions from the existing data, describing the studies as “vastly heterogeneous,” and bearing “a definite lack of consistency in teaching methods and curriculum,” The authors conclude, “With such an array, the true effectiveness of these methods of ethics teaching cannot currently be well assessed especially with a lack of replication studies.”


The literature on ethics education thus has several gaps. First, many of the studies assessing ethics education in the U.S. are decades old. This matters because medical education has changed significantly during the 21st century. (For instance, many medical schools have substantially restructured their curricula and many students do not regularly attend class in person.) These changes may have implications for the efficacy of ethics curricula. Second, there are very few head-to-head comparisons of ethics education interventions. This is notable because ethics curricula are diverse. Finally, and most importantly, there is almost no evidence that these curricula lead to better decision-making in clinical settings — where it matters.

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