Medical ethicists are consultants, teachers, researchers, and policy makers in the field of medical ethics, the branch of philosophy that addresses the moral issues involved in medical practice and research.

Medical Ethicist Career History

Medical ethics as a distinct field arose in the 1960s, although, of course, the realization that an ethical code is an essential aspect of the practice of medicine goes back to ancient times. Physicians throughout the Western world traditionally took the Hippocratic oath in which they pledged to put the patient’s well being ahead of all other consider­ations and to observe confidentiality in all doctor-patient transactions. They promised to respect human life and refused to perform abortions or assist in suicides.

By the middle of the 20th century, however, the explo­sion in medical technology had made ethical decision-making far more complex. At the same time, patients were demanding the right to be actively involved in making decisions about their medical treatment; they were no lon­ger willing to passively accept the paternalism of the tradi­tional “doctor always knows best” model of health care.

Medical Ethicist Career Requirements

High School

To become a medical ethicist, you should take a well-balanced college preparatory course load in high school, including classes in science, math, history, literature, and languages. , professor emeritus and former director of the Vanderbilt University Center for Clinical and Research Ethics, emphasizes the importance of including courses that encourage the development of imagination and creativity, such as literature, art, and music. Good communication skills are also important, so speech and English classes are also recommended.

Work Environment

Medical ethicists work in a variety of settings. Those teaching and conducting research will have a dramati­cally different work environment than those who attend patients in an intensive care unit. In general, ethicists specialize in the area they are most suited for, whether it is a fast-paced hospital, a crowded classroom, or a quiet library. However, as previously mentioned, many medi­cal ethicists combine these duties. As a result, their work environment can be constantly in flux.

Medical Ethicist Career Outlook

Medical ethics has been a growing industry for the last 10 years, and this trend should continue. The sheer quantity of issues demanding attention from medical ethicists will undoubtedly continue to expand as advances in technol­ogy, like the mapping of the human genome, are made.

However, despite the bioethics boom, jobs remain rela­tively few in number. Only the most qualified experts make medical ethics a full-time career; most will supplement their work teaching or consulting in their area of expertise, such as law, religion, or medicine. The advent of managed health care has made it difficult for most institutions to hire full-time medical ethicists. Also, as more universities offer master’s level and certificate-level programs, they can provide current employees with medical ethics training, rather than providing openings for new staff members.


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