Medical ethics education: To what ends?

Michael L. Gross

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The goals of medical ethics education comprise several dimensions: legal duties to secure informed consent, tell the truth and protect confidentiality; objective competencies that include an understanding of DNR regulations and surrogate decision-making procedures; discursive moral skills such as moral sensitivity, reciprocity and moral development that combine into the capacity for moral dialogue and debate; and finally, behavioural goals that challenge moral education to nurture a more humane, sensitive and communicative physician. Part one of this paper describes each of these goals, together with some of the inherent difficulties affecting implementation. Part two presents survey data from medical ethics instructors (n = 126) who were asked about the importance of each goal and their ability to successfully achieve each aim. While each goal is highly rated, only those goals associated with legal duties and objective competencies are thought to be achieved with any degree of relative success. Goals associated with character transformation, unique to medical ethics education, are among the most difficult to achieve. Additional empirical data corroborate these impressions. Moreover, it is not clear that medical ethics education has much to do with good care. Empirical data are scarce and the conceptual relationship between ethics and care remains highly problematic. Part three offers a number of divergent interpretations of care and concludes that they have little to do with medical ethics. There is no reason to expect that medical competence should be affected by moral competence. Medical ethics therefore might then be viewed as an educational enhancement: unnecessary for healthy doctoring but desirable among a small percentage of the profession who maintain an interest in ethical problems.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)387-397
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2001


  • Bioethics
  • Education
  • Moral development

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Health Policy


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