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What is a Bioethics Degree?
The two parts of the word ‘bioethics’ concisely present the challenges faced by practitioners in the field. ‘Ethics’ asks the question, ‘What is the right thing to do?’ ‘Bio’ places that question into the context of advances in biology and medicine.
Bioethicists (or clinical ethicists) analyze the ethical components of real or potential healthcare actions and decisions and offer ethical justifications that support specific choices. Their work is vital to ensuring that medical practices and procedures benefit society as a whole.
Students of bioethics learn how to approach the ‘what is the right thing to do’ question by asking other related questions: What is worthwhile? What are our obligations to one another? Who is responsible, to whom, and for what? Their course of study starts with considering the fundamental ethical issues in biomedical practice, the relationship between the law and ethics, how clinical ethics influences patient care, the connection between moral and cultural values and bioethics across industrialized and developing nations, and the components of ethical research.
It is important to note that some schools do not offer a standalone bioethics degree. In these cases, bioethics may be offered as one of the concentrations available within the philosophy department.
Master’s Degree in Bioethics – Two to Three Year Duration
The master’s degree is the minimum education requirement for working bioethicists. Because of the breadth of the bioethics discipline, students have a variety of areas from which to choose a focus. Examples are clinical ethics (clinical decision making / bedside dilemmas), public health and health policy, neuroethics (focusing on ethical issues raised by our understanding of the brain and our ability to monitor and influence it), reproductive ethics, environmental ethics, and research ethics. The culminating requirement of a master’s program in bioethics is a thesis based on original research.
Doctoral Degree in Bioethics – Three to Four Year Duration
The master’s program involves a lot of taught courses. It emphasizes the transition from pure subject learning to independent research. On the other hand, the doctoral degree is like a very long dissertation project. Ph.D. students have a great deal of independence. They have the benefit of supervision from a faculty advisor and may complete some taught classes, but their focus is on their independent research, on contributing original – new – knowledge to the field of bioethics.
Below is a snapshot of graduate level courses in bioethics, divided into core courses and elective courses. Elective courses will vary depending on each student’s chosen area of focus.
Bioethics Core Courses
• Philosophy of Bioethics – identifying the fundamental ethical questions in biomedical practice; analyzing and clarify concepts such as autonomy, justice, health and disease; assessing the healthcare implications of different ethical viewpoints; addressing controversial biomedical issues
• Law and Bioethics – examination of the relationship between law and ethics; introduction to legal decision-making and policy development; survey of various bioethics issues that have been addressed by courts, legislation, and policy implementation
• Introduction to Clinical Ethics – the development of clinical ethics and how it impacts hospital care and doctor-patient relationships; examination of issues such as informed consent, patient capacity, decision-making, end of life, medical futility, pediatrics ethics, maternal-fetal conflict, organ transplantation, and cultural diversity of beliefs
• Global Ethics – examination of the political, economic, social, cultural, and philosophical aspects of medical research and clinical care in both industrialized and developing countries; a look at differing moral values and opinions towards issues like pharmaceutical drugs, death and dying, and end of life care
• Research Ethics – consideration and discussion of critical issues in biomedical research ethics, including how to protect human subjects, obtain informed consent, protect privacy, and finance research without biasing results
Bioethics Elective Courses
• Science for Bioethicists – exploration of the scientific foundations of some of the challenges in bioethics; discussion of questions such as: How do we ensure that researchers protect the welfare of the research participant in light of evolving science and medicine? Should advances in genetic manipulation be regulated?
• Introduction to Empirical Research in Bioethics – the practical importance of maintaining epistemological consistency across research questions, logic of inquiry, research design, and data collection and analysis
• Reproduction Ethics – examination of ethical issues surrounding developments in assisted reproductive technologies, such as in-vitro fertilization, buying and selling human eggs and sperm, gestational surrogates
• Neuroscience and Ethics – examination of neuroethics – the ethical, legal, and philosophical issues associated with developments in the neurosciences; applications of neuroscience in clinical settings, in the courtroom, and in society at large
• Environmental Ethics – discussion of ethical questions presented by environmental concern; the relationships between bioethics and the human biosphere
• Pastoral Care and Bioethics – introduction to the practice of pastoral care, the responsibilities of pastoral caregivers, and definitions of spirituality; how spirituality influences decisions about end of life, care goals, pain, organ donation, family conflict, medical team conflict, and pastoral caregiver compassion fatigue
• E-Health, Ethics, and Policy – exploration of ethical issues that arise as a result of advancing technological capabilities of e-health/telemedicine (healthcare supported by electronic communication) and m-health (mobile health)
• Ethics and the Pharmaceutical Industry – examination and discussion of the major components of the drug development process and associated ethical issues
• Health Policy and Bioethics – introduction to how healthcare policy is determined and implemented, ethical issues presented by the influence of politics on biomedical progress and health policy
• Clinical Ethics Consultation – a case-based view of clinical ethics consultation; applying bioethics knowledge and clinical consultation skills to common dilemmas that arise in the clinical setting; moral dilemmas in advanced illness, end of life care, medical decision-making for the unrepresented patient, caring for the incapacitated patient, refusal of treatment, discharge planning, and pediatric cases; mediation, conducting family meetings
• Advanced Clinical Ethics: End of Life Care – how medical decisions at the end of life are influenced by medical, legal, and philosophical principles and social norms
• Journalism and Bioethics – analyzing news coverage and understanding how news culture helps shape medical and ethical articles, opinions, and discussions; how ethical experts can improve the coverage of health and medicine
• Clinical Ethics Practicum – supervised in-hospital experience leading or co-leading clinical ethics consults
• Public Health: Coercion and Persuasion – exploration of the uses of coercion and persuasion by public health practitioners to prevent and control disease spread; applying psychological and emotional pressure; determining the degree of coercion necessary in face of a public health challenge
Degrees Similar to Bioethics
Simply stated, biomedical engineering uses engineering to solve health and medical problems. For example, a biomedical engineer might look for chemical signals in the body that warn of a particular disease or condition.
Ethics, also known as moral philosophy, is the study of the moral principles that govern human behavior. The field is concerned with what is good for individuals and society. Coursework in the field includes human rights and justice, the philosophy of punishment, business ethics, media ethics, and bioethics.
Philosophy encourages the asking of big questions and the formulation of arguments to attempt to answer them. Who are we? Why are we here? What do we believe? Why do we believe it? What is right and wrong in life? What is true and false? What is real and unreal? Philosophy is concerned with the nature of existence and knowledge.
Psychobiology is the interaction between biological systems and behavior. It is concerned with how what we think and what we feel combine with biological events. Research in the field covers topics such as how psychological stressors can impact the brain and behavior. An example is how an exam or job interview can cause heart palpitations.
Students who enter degree programs in public health look at how access and lack of access to healthcare, health education, and funding affect the spread, treatment, and prevention of disease. Epidemiology – the science concerned with the spread and control of diseases and viruses – is the science at the heart of public health.
The focus of religious studies degree programs is the nature and origin of religious belief and traditions. Coursework includes the study of specific religions such as Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism and Catholicism, as well as religious history, politics, and anthropology.
Skills You'll Learn
The wide subject matter of bioethics naturally leaves its students with a set of core competencies that can be applied in virtually any conversation, task, or occupation. Many of these skills can also be used to acquire other aptitudes and abilities.
• Adaptability / Ability to consider multiple viewpoints
• Collaboration – developed through the need to work with professionals in the medical and scientific fields
• Critical Thinking
• Data Interpretation / Statistical Methods
• Diversity / Inclusion
• Ethical Reasoning
• Information Summarizing / Report Writing / Documentation
• Investigation / Analysis / Research
• Oral and Written Communication
• Partnering / Collaboration / Advocacy
• Planning / Organization
• Policy and Program Planning, Implementation, and Evaluation
• Problem-Solving / Decision-Making
What Can You Do with a Bioethics Degree?
Many people who want to apply a bioethics background in their work also bring a mastery of another discipline to their job. In other words, it is common for students to combine bioethics studies with education in another field, one which benefits from the moral foundations of bioethics. Health and healthcare, law, and academics are the areas in which bioethicists most often find employment.
Below are some of the job tracks followed by bioethics graduates. Of course, some of these roles require independent credentialing in addition to bioethics knowledge and understanding.
Health and Healthcare
This is the sector where the purest bioethics role – known as clinical ethics consultation (CEC) – is found. Clinical ethics consultants work in hospitals, nursing homes, etc., where they draft hospital policies and consult on cases.
Other opportunities in this sector include:
• Genetics Counseling
• Healthcare Administration
• Hospital Chaplaincy
• Medical Social work
• Medicine (physicians and surgeons)
• Pharmaceuticals and Biotechnology
• Public Health, Policy, and Ethics
• Teaching bioethics at a medical or nursing school
• Medical Organizations and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)
• Bioethics-related legal practice – in specialized areas such as elder law, intellectual property, and patent law
• Bioethics legal consulting in a hospital or medical research setting – serving on hospital ethics committees; consulting on subjects such as euthanasia, stem-cell research, and cloning; protecting against malpractices
• Law and health policy working with medical-school based bioethics centers
• Teaching law and bioethics
Bioethics grads may find roles with think tanks and as professors and researchers with universities, most often in departments such as:
• Religious Studies
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