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Professional Responsibility

Course Directors

Course Description


Professional Responsibility examines many of the moral, legal, economic, social, and structural aspects of the health care system in which you will immerse yourself over the next several decades of your working life. What you learn in this course will have lasting importance in the coming years, as you complete your schooling and residency training, and then build your career from among your many choices, including patient care, teaching, research, administration, and leadership.

One of our most important tasks in this course will be to examine the moral and ethical context of the practice of medicine, or what society expects of us in addition to our purely technical skills – including how we comport ourselves, how well we communicate, what our obligations to our patients and communities are, and how well we live up to them. We will also be expected to recognize, confront, and resolve ethical dilemmas that arise during patient care and research, when the proper course of action – what we should do – is not immediately obvious, and there is often disagreement among well-meaning people. These disagreements are particularly likely to arise at the time of critical life events – pregnancy, childbirth, life-threatening illness, and the dying process.

Professional Responsibility will also examine the social and economic contexts in which the profession operates, including how the health care system is (or is not) organized and paid for, how the health professions are governed, and what the law has to say about health care and its practitioners. And we will examine the range of possible effects of the current turmoil in our federal government on the health care system.


Lectures and small group discussion sessions. Students take turns leading the small group discussion sessions under the supervision of faculty facilitators.



  • Students receive narrative feedback from faculty at the end of the course.


  • At the end of the semester Students each make a presentation to their colleagues in their small group on an issue related to topics covered in the course.

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the number of uninsured in the U.S., explain the impact that the Affordable Care Act has had on that number, and under what circumstances health insurance coverage could be expanded in the U.S.
  • Describe the legal context within which the health care system and medical profession operate, and give a basic explanation of the components of malpractice.
  • Elaborate the relationship between an individual’s socio-economic status and health, and outline several theories about why that relationship exists
  • Describe the physician’s role in caring for patients who are dying, and discuss the ethical debates surrounding the practices of physician-assisted suicide, voluntary euthanasia, and terminal palliation
  • Describe the structure and functioning of the pharmaceutical industry, explain the process of the development, introduction and marketing of new medications.
  • Explain what constitutes an ethical dilemma in the practice of medicine or the operation of the health care system, and to describe an approach to resolving ethical dilemma. Students should be able to describe several obligations to patients that
  • Identify and discuss a range of ethical controversies in the area of reproductive medicine.
  • Explain what constitutes a conflict of interest for practicing physicians and those who conduct research on human subjects, and provide knowledgeable arguments in support of their positions on the extent to which financial conflicts of interests
  • Discuss the ethical issues involved in conducting human research, describe some previous abuses of human subjects research, and explain how the role of the investigator is different from the role of the clinician.
  • Describe the overall organizational, economic and financial structure of the U.S health care system, including the role of health insurance and government-derived funding, and the major changes introduced by the Affordable Care Act
  • Explain why health care costs have risen more rapidly than overall inflation in all developed nations, and why costs have risen so much more rapidly in the United States than in other developed nations
  • Explain why health care spending increases need to be contained, and offer a range of options as to how this might occur.