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Federal law change provides pharmacy professors with platform to discuss ethics, morals

by Hilary Gowins
Jan 15, 2009


Hilary Gowins/MEDILL

New federal law has impacted the ethical education of new physicians.

Starting Sunday, as you hurriedly pick up that prescription you hope your insurance covers, you might want to pay closer attention to the white coat across the counter.

On Sunday, changes in federal law approved a month ago regarding physicians’ right to conscience take effect, providing health care workers the right and ability to exercise their own moral judgment when providing -- or not providing -- care and medication.

But where do the pharmacists, doctors and nurses whose judgment has become so increasingly important learn about professional ethics and morality?

For most, this education begins in the collegiate setting.

And for many students at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Pharmacy, this moral compass begins to develop in a course called Ethical Considerations in the Practice of Pharmacy, taught by Dr. Debra Agard, an assistant dean at the school.

“I guess I approach ethics from a standpoint not of teaching them but taking them from an angle of self-exploration,” Agard said of her approach with her students.

“I remind them that, hey, there’s the law and then there’s what will help you sleep at night,” she added.

Agard’s colleague, Dr. Marieke Schoen, professor of pharmacy practice and assistant dean of academic affairs, explained that pharmacy students are also taken through 12 to 15 hours of content that forces them to consider overarching ethics dilemmas.

Both professors emphasized the need for their students to self-reflect.

Other pharmacy programs around the country, however, according to at least one industry professional, approach matters of conscience from a religious point of view.

“One of our values is to be anchored in ethics,” said Dr. James Spencer, an assistant professor of pharmacy at Creighton University, a Jesuit school in Omaha, also noting that the school specifically draws upon the Judeo-Christian tradition.

But despite the university’s religious perspective, Dr. Spencer’s method of educating his students in moral matters shares many of the same approaches as his Chicago counterpart, placing students in hypothetical scenarios that mirror what they might face in the workforce.

“We teach students how to think,” Spencer said. “We don’t teach them what to think.”

Despite religious affiliations -- or lack thereof -- at schools nationwide, the structure of most medical ethics courses introduces the challenges that students will face in the future, but leave it up to them as individuals to decide how to act.

Agard said that what becomes apparent is that, in the end, regardless of a person’s personal beliefs, a few college courses in ethics and a specific set of laws laid down by the government probably won’t dictate how a person decides to deal with moral dilemmas once they graduate.

“Your values,” she said, “will determine whether you abide by the law.”