Gavel and stethoscope.

How to Assess the Impact of Medical Ethics Education

By Leah Pierson

There has been too little evaluation of ethics courses in medical education in part because there is not consensus on what these courses should be trying to achieve. Recently, I argued that medical school ethics courses should help trainees to make more ethical decisions. I also reviewed evidence suggesting that we do not know whether these courses improve decision making in clinical practice. Here, I consider ways to assess the impact of ethics education on real-world decision making and the implications these assessments might have for ethics education.

Ethics education and clinical practice

The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) includes “adherence to ethical principles” among the “clinical activities that residents are expected to perform on day one of residency.” Notably, the AAMC does not say graduates should merely understand ethical principles; rather, they should be able to abide by them.

This means that if ethics classes impart knowledge and skills — say, an understanding of ethical principles or improved moral reasoning — but don’t prepare trainees to behave ethically in practice, they have failed to accomplish their overriding objective. Indeed, a 2022 review on the impact of ethics education concludes that there is a “moral obligation” to show that ethics curricula affect clinical practice.

Unfortunately, we have little sense of whether ethics courses improve physicians’ ethical decision-making in practice.

Choosing outcomes

Ideally, assessments of ethics curricula should focus on outcomes that are clinically relevant, ethically important, and measurable. Identifying such outcomes is hard, primarily because many of the goals of ethics curricula cannot be easily measured. For instance, ethics curricula may improve ethical decision-making by increasing clinicians’ awareness of the ethical issues they encounter, enabling them to either directly address these dilemmas or seek help. Unfortunately, this skill cannot be readily assessed in clinical settings.

But other real-world outcomes are more measurable. Consider the following example:

Physicians regularly make decisions about which patients have decision-making capacity (“capacity”). This determination matters both clinically and ethically, as it establishes whether patients can make medical decisions for themselves. (Notably, capacity is not a binary: patients can retain capacity to make some decisions but not others, or can retain capacity to make decisions with the support of a surrogate.)

Incorrectly determining that a patient has or lacks capacity can strip them of fundamental rights or put them at risk of receiving care they do not want. It is thus important that clinicians correctly determine which patients possess capacity and which do not.

However, although a large percentage of hospitalized patients lack capacity, physicians often do not feel confident in their ability to assess capacity, fail to recognize that most patients who do not have capacity lack it, and often disagree on which patients have capacity.

Finally, although capacity is challenging to assess, there are relatively clear and widely agreed upon criteria for assessing it, and evaluation tools with high interrater reliability. Given this, it would be both possible and worthwhile to determine whether medical trainees’ ability to assess capacity in clinical settings is enhanced by ethics education.

Here are two potential approaches to evaluating this: first, medical students might perform observed capacity assessments on their psychiatry rotations, just as they perform observed neurological exams on their neurology rotations. Students’ capacity assessments could be compared to a “gold standard,” or the assessments of physicians who have substantial training and experience in evaluating capacity using structured interviewing tools. Second, residents who consult psychiatry for capacity assessments could be asked to first determine whether they think a patient has capacity and why. This determination could be compared with the psychiatrist’s subsequent assessment. Programs could then randomize trainees to ethics training — or to a given type of ethics training — to determine the effect of ethics education on the quality and accuracy of trainees’ capacity assessments.

Of course, ethics curricula should do much more than make trainees good at assessing capacity. But measuring one clinically and ethically significant endpoint could provide insight into other aspects of ethics education in two important ways.

First, if researchers were to determine that trainees do a poor job of assessing capacity because they have too little time, or cannot remember the right questions to ask, or fail to check capacity in the first place, this would point to different solutions — some of which education could help with, and others of which it likely would not.

Second, if researchers were to determine that trainees generally do a poor job of assessing capacity because of a given barrier, this could have implications for other kinds of ethical decisions. For instance, if researchers were to find that trainees fail to perform thorough capacity assessments primarily because of time constraints, other ethical decisions would likely be impacted as well. Moreover, this insight could be used to improve ethics curricula. After all, ethics classes should teach clinicians how to respond to the challenges they most often face.

Not all (or perhaps even most) aspects of clinicians’ ethical decision-making are amenable to these kinds of evaluations in clinical settings, meaning other types of evaluations will play an important role as well. But many routine practices — assessing capacity, acquiring informed consent, advance care planning, and allocating resources, for instance — are. And given the importance of these endpoints, it is worth determining whether ethics education improves clinicians’ decision making across these domains.

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