Purpose: Despite attempts to describe the "ideal" medical ethics curriculum, few data exist describing current practices in medical ethics education to guide curriculum directors. This study aimed to determine the scope and content of required, formal ethics components in the curricula of U.S. medical schools.
Method: A questionnaire sent to all curriculum directors of four-year medical schools in the U.S. (n = 121) requested course syllabi for all required, formal ethics components in the four-year curriculum. Syllabi were coded and analyzed to produce a profile of course objectives, teaching methods, course contents, and methods for assessing students.
Results: Questionnaires were returned by 87 representatives of the schools (72%). A total of 69 (79%) required a formal ethics course, and 58 (84%) provided their ethics course syllabi. Analysis and codification of all syllabi identified ten course objectives, eight teaching methods, 39 content areas, and six methods of assessing students. The means for individual schools were three objectives, four teaching methods, 13 content areas, and two methods of assessment. The 58 syllabi either required or recommended 1,191 distinct readings, only eight of which were used by more than six schools.
Conclusions: Ethics education is far from homogeneous among U.S. medical schools, in both content and extensiveness. While the study of syllabi demonstrates significant areas of overlap with recent efforts to identify an "ideal" ethics curriculum for medical students, several areas of weakness emerged that require attention from medical educators.