Faculty News

All doctors learn the broad principles of ethics in medical school, but when they begin seeing patients they’re inevitably confronted with more mundane, yet still significant, ethical concerns. These concerns include patient consent, healthcare bias, and language barriers, among others.

Macaulay Honors College professor Elizabeth Reis sought to bring undergraduate students closer to authentic situations and stories faced by healthcare providers, so she brought the class into the hospital.

Reis enlisted Dr. Matt McCarthy, an assistant professor of medicine at Cornell and a staff physician at Weill Cornell Medical Center. Both serve on the hospital’s ethics committee and have written extensively on the topic.

Reis says, “by turning the hospital into a classroom, students will learn how theoretical discussions of important ethical concerns like patient autonomy, end-of-life care, or the limits of informed consent are applied in a medical setting.”

Reis’s unique course blends interdisciplinary scholarship on bioethics with an applied perspective on ethical decision-making in the clinical setting. Students read literature in philosophy, medicine, law, history, sociology, anthropology, and public policy, explore basic concepts in bioethics and see how they are utilized in the hospital.

“We do see a wide variety of issues that pop up in the hospital that require some ethical consideration,” added McCarthy. “For example, the opioid epidemic, we’ve all heard about it but to see a patient up close, to see how physicians are wrestling with the treatment decisions can bring it to light.”

Student response has been overwhelming. Said one senior, “the most important lesson I learned was that there is no clear right or wrong answer in medical ethics. The ultimate decision can have morally significant consequences either way.”

“How can we best incorporate humanism, empathy, and compassion into medical care?” added another student, pondering the class’s impact. “I enjoyed learning how better patient care more often than not leads to better treatment. Food for thought, not just for the medical world, but for the diverse occupations we all will find ourselves in for the future.”

ELIZABETH REIS is a professor at the Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York where she teaches courses on Reproductive Technologies, Transgender Issues, The Politics of Women’s Health, and Medical Ethics. @lzreis

MATT MCCARTHY is an assistant professor of medicine at Cornell, a staff physician at Weill Cornell Medical Center, and the author of The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly: A Physician’s First Year. His writing has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Slate, The New England Journal of Medicine, and Deadspin, where he writes the Medspin column. His first book, Odd Man Out, was a New York Times bestseller.