Navigating the wards: teaching medical students to use their moral compasses

Acad Med. 1996 Jun;71(6):591-4. doi: 10.1097/00001888-199606000-00009.


The upsurge in formal medical ethics training stems from the desire for more compassionate, less "dehumanized" physicians who can competently face the ethical dilemmas posed by technologic advances and resource constraints. How best to encourage ethical thinking and behavior among medical students remains an open question. However, the authors argue that medical ethics education suffers from an overreliance on strategies that target ethical thinking, with relative inattention to students as ethical actors in specific clinical contexts. In order to produce ethically competent physicians, medical educators must not only teach students to understand and learn from the dilemmas that shape their moral world but also train them to respond to those dilemmas appropriately. The authors discuss current practices in ethics education and how traditional approaches may not equip students with the types of moral "navigating skills" they need to become ethical physicians. They illustrate how medical students can and do learn norms of ethical behavior on the wards and argue why medical education ought to focus more explicitly on this aspect of clinical training. They conclude by recommending ways medical educators can encourage ethical thinking and behavior throughout the entire course of medical training.

MeSH terms

  • Clinical Clerkship
  • Clinical Competence
  • Conflict of Interest
  • Education, Medical, Undergraduate*
  • Ethics, Medical / education*
  • Humanism
  • Internship and Residency / standards
  • Mentors
  • Moral Development*
  • Morals*
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Students, Medical*
  • United States