Background: Despite the recent increase in activity in the field of medical ethics education, few evaluative studies have been carried out. Most studies have taken place in North America, in curricula where teaching is discipline-based, and have concentrated on outcome rather than on the curricular processes adopted.
Aim: To evaluate the process of medical ethics education in the first year of a new learner-centred, problem-based, integrated medical curriculum.
Method: A qualitative, multi-method approach was adopted using open questionnaires, focus groups and tutor evaluation rating scales. The study involved all 238 students in the first year of the new medical curriculum, and the 30 clinical tutors who facilitated ethics learning. A stratified sampling technique was used to choose focus group participants.
Results: Small group teaching proved highly acceptable to both students and tutors. Tutors' teaching skills were central to its effectiveness. Tutors played an important role in promoting students' appreciation of the relevance of medical ethics to clinical practice, and in establishing a climate where constructive criticism of colleagues' actions is acceptable. Course integration, including the provision for students of clinical experiences on which to reflect, was an important aid to learning. Students and tutors were noted to be driving the ethics curriculum towards having a contextual rather than theoretical base.
Conclusion: This evaluation identified those aspects of the medical ethics course which contributed to its effectiveness and those which detracted from it. This information will be used to inform future development.