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Ministry of Ethics

As a student and throughout your career as a doctor, ethical dilemmas will regularly creep into your work. For example, what information can you give to your patient's family or the police without breaking patient confidentiality? Or what should you do if your patient, who is brain dead and being kept alive on a ventilator, has given their consent for organ donation, but the patient’s family objects?

The lack of dynamic and interactive educational resources to teach medical ethics and law (MEL) spurred medical students at Cambridge University to develop an online interactive resource to support students and trainees to work through these tricky situations – the Ministry of Ethics.

‘Despite the fact that it was 2010, there were actually very few comprehensive resources for MEL learning online,’ says Mark Baxter, one of the three students who led development of the website. ‘We used the latest software to animate our case scenarios into 3D animations, and integrated this with a website that allowed educators and learners to discuss these cases.’

It took around five months for Mark, Philip Xiu and Jacky Wong to develop and launch the website. It’s self-funded and free to use, and provides students with a selection of animated case videos, interactive assessment questions, and information on a range of study topics drawn from guidance and law. 

What would you do?

A patient in East Anglia comes to A&E with a gunshot wound in his thigh. He says he was shot accidentally whilst hunting pheasants with his brother. You treat the wound and give him antibiotics.

What is the next course of action?

  • Report to the police
  • Report only if the patient consents to it
  • Encourage the patient to report to the police
  • It was accidental so it does not need to be reported
  • Do not report to the police

This is just one of the many assessment questions available on the website. You can find the answer at the bottom of this page or in the Ministry of Ethics' interactive assessment section of the website.

Developing skills to help throughout your career

The website development team have already seen how helpful the scenarios can be in their work as doctors.

‘In the first month of Philip’s F1 job, he was contacted by the police to give medical information about a patient who was involved in a possible criminal investigation,’ recounts Mark. ‘This situation mirrored an ethical scenario that he had written for the Ministry of Ethics website several months before. So he was able to tell the detective to get in contact with the consultant or to request a court order for medical information, which is in line with GMC guidance.’

The team has received very favourable feedback from MEL educators across the country and from users in Europe, the USA and Asia. The website won the Mark Brennan prize from the Institute of Medical Ethics for best presentation and innovation in teaching. Last year it was highly commended as a digital and online resource at the BMA Book Awards 2011, and it was awarded the best national e-learning resource prize by BMJ Learning’s OnExamination at the UK Medical Students’ Association International Conference.

Our Standards and Ethics team has reviewed the website and Policy Officer Caroline Strickland commented ‘The Ministry of Ethics project appears to be a useful reference tool, featuring GMC guidance to good effect. Any project that gives prominence to the key aspects of medical ethics and law deserves to be encouraged and applauded.’

Mark, Philip and Jacky actively encourage students to contribute to the Ministry of Ethics website and they have many exciting projects underway. If you are interested in getting involved, you can email them at contact@ministryofethics.co.uk.

GMC guidance

One of the key sources of information for the website is the GMC’s ethical guidance, which sets out the principles you should follow in your work. Our core guidance is Good Medical Practice, but we also provide guidance on issues from reporting gunshot and knife wounds, personal beliefs and medical practice, and obtaining consent to treatment from children.

We’ve developed interactive case studies to bring this guidance to life – GMP in Action. We are currently revising GMP in Action with a view to making it more interactive, easy to use and mobile-friendly. It is due for release in December 2012.

Next month we’ll be publishing guidance on protecting children and young people, which is one of the most difficult and emotionally challenging areas of a doctor’s work. You will be able to find this, and all our guidance, on our website at www.gmc-uk.org/guidance/ethical_guidance.asp.

Tell us about your tricky ethical situations

If you’ve come across any ethical situations, we’re keen to hear from you. You can email us at gmcstudentnews@gmc-uk.org.

(Answer: Report it to the police. GMC guidance states that reporting of gunshot wounds is mandatory to the police as they are responsible for the risk assessment (of the patient) as well as ensuring statistical information about gun crime is not lost.)