Context: Patients may participate in teaching in many ways, in different settings and with different degrees of expert supervision. The majority of patients are generally very willing to participate in teaching. At times, however, patients may decline to see students because they are too sick, wish to maintain their privacy, prefer to have more expert care, or simply wish to have no involvement with students. This raises the question as to whether patients have any obligation to participate in education.
Methods: A number of arguments are advanced to justify the claim that patients have an obligation to participate in student teaching. These include: that patients should participate in training for the benefit of others if they wish to benefit from the care of those who have learnt from others; that, without patient participation in teaching, the entire health system would collapse; that participation in education provides a benefit over and above the provision of individual care; that, as we all benefit from the presence of a functioning health system, we should all be prepared to contribute to it, and that patients should 'pay' for free public health care by participating in teaching.
Conclusions: None of the arguments that patients have an obligation to participate in medical education are convincing. We believe that patients participate in training largely out of altruism rather than obligation. Where possible, sick patients should be substituted for by healthy patients or simulations.