Update: Ethics on the chopping block

Last week, we reported the proposed closure of the ethics program at the University of Tennessee along with the elimination of the Bioethics Council of New Zealand.

A well-informed reader got in touch with us to tell us some further details about the University of Tennessee closure, which we’ll summarize here.

It seems that the UT College of Medicine, in which the Ethics department is housed, has proposed a formula to establish which programs should continue and which ones should be cut. The elements of the formula involve student hours taught along with research revenue generated. If the department also brings in clinical revenue, it’s looked upon even more favourably.

According to this reader, the plan for the cuts sends two clear, and arguably problematic, messages.

The first message is that only money matters in terms of measuring importance and productivity of persons and academic units. Individual faculty members must generate research dollars and clinical dollars in order to be considered valuable. Individual faculty members — who are, at most academic institutions, already under pressure to bring in research funds — will be under even more pressure at UT to generate funds to ensure that their whole unit won’t close because of their individual “lack of productivity”.

The second message is that rules don’t matter. The proposed closure and the resultant cuts to ethics education for medical students potentially violate national accreditation standards for medical education, according to our reader. The message here is that rules don’t matter — even if they are nationally accepted rules about how future physicians should be educated.

I think that these cuts, as the reader has outlined them, sends yet another message — that ethics doesn’t matter. These medical students are future clinicians and researchers. Having clinical knowledge and expertise alone isn’t sufficient in order to be a good researcher. In fact, clinical knowledge and expertise aren’t enough to be a good clinician, either. Having knowledge about ethics, and opportunities to apply this knowledge in both clinical and research contexts, is just as fundamental as learning how to insert a ‘central line’ or how to analyze a dataset.

~ by Nancy Walton on March 19, 2009.

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