Background: Although bioethics has become an established part of medical school curricula, relatively little is known about how students apply didactic material to clinical problem-solving situations.
Method: Each of 92 second-year students (54 men and 38 women) at the University of California, Irvine, College of Medicine in 1991-92 wrote a paper identifying and attempting to resolve a clinical ethical dilemma of his or her choice. The papers were then coded for content, use of ethical theories and principles, degree of resolution, and level of personal orientation (i.e., evidence of personal involvement in the dilemmas). Data were analyzed by student sex and age, using chi-square tests of significance and correlational analysis.
Results: The students had no difficulty in identifying a range of ethical dilemma. Most students appeared to have understood and become familiar with the major ethical theories and principles currently in use, and to have employed them correctly. A majority of the students were able to successfully resolve their ethical dilemmas. Differences between the men and the women students were found regarding choice of topic, ethical principles used (p = .03), and level of personal orientation (p < .01).
Conclusion: The women tended to be interested in issues involving broad social perspectives; to favor arguments emphasizing the rights of patients and families; and to incorporate personal responses, as well as abstract theories, in their assays. The men tended to be interested in issues involving personal control, authority, and responsibility; to advocate utilitarian, cost-containment thinking, and to rely exclusively on abstract, logical arguments. Further research should determine whether these differences can be identified in actual clinical decision making, and whether the differences have implications for the nature or quality of clinical decisions.