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Finding a Brief Introduction to Bioethics

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If a recent reference request from a curriculum development friend is indicative of the state of medical education, students are demanding quick fixes. It seems that medical students are busy people (no surprise) and for better or for worse (no, just “for worse”), they’re just not ready to sit down and read a thorough, tried-and-true introduction to principles of bioethics. Although the demands of the market (money and time) probably do much to erode the ethical foundations of even the most conscientious medical professional, I believe these foundations would be a good bit stiffer if all were required to read and discuss Beauchamp and Childress’s Principles of biomedical ethics (New York: OUP, 2001) or Veatch’s The basics of bioethics (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2003).

So, what is one to do? Can one provide a good introduction to biomedical ethics in less than 10 pages? Let’s be honest … many students will merely give themselves a crash course by perusing Wikipedia. Which means, if there’s a good brief introduction to bioethics available online, it must be at least as easy to access and to read as are Wikipedia’s entries on bioethics and medical ethics.

I should note here that, although faculty will be reluctant to use Wikipedia, the page on medical ethics is not bad. In fact, it’s more thorough than many of the popular Web pages written by bioethicists as introductions to the field. Too often these introductions focus on the latest hot topic (e.g., stem cell research) or the great scandals of medical research (e.g., Tuskegee), without sharing the philosophical underpinnings that inform contemporary ethical scrutiny and decision making. The Wiki entry provides a few sentences for the main principles and a paragraph for some of the key tools and concepts, like “informed consent”. Links to many of the hot topics and events in the history of medical ethics are also provided.

As an alternative to the Wikipedia entry, I recommend Thomas R. McCormick’s “Bioethics Tools: Principles of Bioethics“. This page is a part of a module created and maintained by the The Bioethics Education Project at the Department of Medical History & Ethics at the University of Washington School of Medicine. The page provides the most succinct and well-written summary of Beauchamp and Childress that I have seen online. (If someone knows of something better, please let me know.) The page was created in the late 90s and the web design certainly looks dated, but links are provided to case studies and to additional resources and topics covered by the entire Ethics in Medicine website [site map]. This resource isn’t perfect: oddly the site does have a home page, but once you’re inside the site, it’s hard to find your way back … well-written content, poor design. Also, it appears that the site was written with the University of Washington School of Medicine students foremost in mind. While this doesn’t change the value of the material, it does limit the appeal for non-UW readers. The Bioethics Education Project was built with the support of an award from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. So, like many innovative programs in bioethics, its future development will probably need added grant support. Nevertheless, if you’re looking for a good online introduction to bioethics, the University of Washington School of Medicine’s Ethics is Medicine is my current favorite … and, if the good folks at the RWJF are reading, please consider revisiting this project.


Written by Jere

May 25, 2008 at 12:02 am

Posted in Ethics

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