Purpose: To assess the effect of a class in medical ethics on first-year medical students.
Method: A test instrument was developed to measure the attitudes of medical students toward certain ethical questions and to assess their factual knowledge regarding particular legal and ethical issues. The instrument was administered in 1992-93 to 110 first-year students at the University of Virginia School of Medicine before and after the students took a required course in medical ethics. The instrument employed clinical vignettes as well as multiple-choice, true-false, and Likert-scale questions. Its reliability and validity were assessed.
Results: The required course in medical ethics had little influence on the students. There was only one significant change (p = .05) in the pattern of responses to any of the clinical vignettes. In a few of the attitude-oriented queries, there were statistically significant changes (p < .05) after the course. Although there were statistically significant changes for only four of the factual-knowledge questions, for all such questions more students identified the correct answers after the class (before the course the range of correct answers was 43% to 99% compared with 64% to 100% after the course).
Conclusion: The class in medical ethics seemed to have little effect on the first-year students, probably because students arrive at medical school with well-established ethical perspectives.