Purpose: To use issues identified by students in order to establish an experience- and evidence-based approach to medical ethics education.
Method: A total of 628 sophomore and senior students at the State University of New York at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences were asked to identify incidents during their clinical training that had raised ethical concerns. The sophomores were surveyed during two time periods: 1979-80, and 1991-92 and 1992-93; the seniors were surveyed in 1991-92 and 1992-93. Responses were analyzed and categorized through content analysis.
Results: In all, 249 students (45% of the sophomores and 20% of the seniors) responded. The categories of issues identified were professional norms, limits of intervention, defensive shielding of professional colleagues, respect toward patients, communication, and student boundaries (situations where the student feels uncomfortable). The most frequently reported incidents reflected the students' perceptions of lapses in level of care (under- or over-treatment), communication, respect toward patients, and maintenance of professional norms. The seniors and the 1979-80 sophomores reported respect toward patients as an issue less often than did the 1991-92 and 1992-93 sophomores. The seniors most often identified concerns raised over limits of intervention and resource allocation.
Conclusion: The differences between the responses of the sophomores and seniors tend to support other research suggesting a retardation of moral sensitivity in the course of medical education. It may be that clinical teaching and faculty behavior model values at odds with what is taught in the classroom. Ethics education should focus on issues relevant to students' experience.