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Teaching rounds and the experience of death as a medical ethicist
  1. R R Sharp
  1. Dr R R Sharp, Director, Bioethics Research, The Cleveland Clinic, 9500 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio 44195, USA; sharpr3{at}

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Several times each month, usually on a Thursday morning, I join one or more of my physician colleagues on teaching rounds. Most weeks these are traditional rounds, where an attending physician leads a group of medical students, residents, and clinical fellows from bed to bed reviewing charts, examining patients, and planning daily procedures. As a medical ethicist, my role is to discuss some of the ethical issues that are embedded in these decisions about medical care and help students to hone the skills required to manage these issues successfully in the context of ongoing care.

Although the clinical setting varies, questions of patient management are always at the center of teaching rounds. Since my training is in philosophy, and not in medicine or nursing, there have been occasions when this focus on patient care has prompted me to reflect upon my role as a medical ethicist in these contexts. Lacking even the most basic medical training, and having been remarkably fortunate in having had limited personal experiences as a patient, what can I possibly contribute to the training of physicians?

I suspect that at some time or another most teachers, but perhaps especially those trained in the humanities, have moments when they question the usefulness of their teaching. In my case, by introducing perspectives from the humanities on teaching rounds, my hope is to add some balance to the often narrow focus on the ordering of diagnostic tests, scheduling of procedures, obtaining of patient consent, and other practical matters. I often stress, for example, how the patients with whom students and residents interact are not mere patients, but persons with lives outside the hospital that can be made profoundly better or worse as a result of the brief time they are seen in the hospital. I draw attention to the …

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  • 1 In suggesting this I do not mean to suggest that medical professionals are sometimes emotionally distant or unavailable to their patients (though some may be). Instead, I wish to suggest that the experiences of death that many medical professionals have are markedly different from the experiences of death with which persons outside of medicine may be familiar.

  • 2 There are exceptions to this claim. Clinical ethicists working in cancer hospitals, for example, or medical ethicists who work with hospice organisations may be more immediately present to dying patients and their families.

  • Competing interests: None declared.