Tennessee medical school plans to eliminate ethics department
■ In what may be a first, a bioethics program finds itself on the chopping block. Medical ethicists cry foul.
By Kevin B. O’Reilly — Posted March 26, 2009
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A proposal to eliminate the medical ethics department at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center's College of Medicine would deprive medical students of critical training, said bioethicists upset by the plan.
Experts said they had never heard of a medical school eliminating its bioethics program. The Liaison Committee on Medical Education says ethics must be taught, though it does not require a separate department.
The Dept. of Human Values & Ethics is one of eight medical school departments under the gun due to a universitywide $38 million budget shortfall for the 2008-09 fiscal year. The department, which has three tenured faculty, is being targeted because "it has minimal funded research programs," Executive Dean Steve J. Schwab, MD, said in a Feb. 13 memo to university trustees.
The memo outlined a plan to retain one half-time faculty member to coordinate ethics training as part of clinical rotations. Dr. Schwab did not respond to an American Medical News interview request by deadline. The board of trustees meets next in June.
Medical ethicists objected to the proposal.
The dean's plan is "an absolutely unacceptable way of doing this," said Hilde Lindemann, PhD, president of the 1,600-member American Society for Bioethics and Humanities. "It is not taking seriously what's involved in ethical reflection." She worried that if the plan goes through, other medical schools would follow suit.
Haavi Morreim, PhD, is a University of Tennessee medical ethics professor who would be affected by the plan. She defended the department.
"Our approach is not simply a matter of reciting dusty old writing," Morreim said. "It is a matter of helping physicians and students to recognize an ethical issue when it's there and to understand problem-solving approaches."