The very idea of teaching medical/health ethics without medical/health law or medical/health law without medical/health ethics

Malcolm Parker1

1 School of Medicine, University of Queensland, Herston Road, Herston, Qld 4006,

Within applied ethics, the pre-eminence of medical and health ethics has led to its explicit inclusion in education programs, but through a wide variety of formats. Formal medical/health law instruction has lagged ethics; this makes for even more variable student exposure to current norms. Both ethics and law may be taught in a variety of ways: by internal or external teachers; comprehensively and systematically or in opportunistic offerings; separately or in some integrated form; and so on.

Health professionals practise in professional, political, social and legal, as well as ethical contexts, all of which overlap and interact. No health provider can deliver health care on the sole basis of fundamental ethics, or of current law, or existing professional codes. These primary social normative aspects of medical and health practice should be more consciously integrated (and systematised) in medical and health education. This allows for a greater appreciation of the pervasiveness in professional life of values of different though related kinds, together with how and why these normative sources will sometimes deliver congruent prescriptions, but sometimes discordant guidance. An understanding of the history of change in ethics, professional ethics and law contributes to understanding the history of the health professions, how they have helped mould and been influenced by the society they serve, and why the normative environment they will enter on graduation is like it is. This includes an appreciation of the prominent legal traditions of natural law and positivism that inform our legal structures, the ethical and historical underpinnings of these traditions, and hence our law.

Clinical examples are provided, demonstrating the advantages of teaching ethics, law and professional issues in an integrated fashion, to underpin the understandings described and to prepare students for the complex normative environment in which they will practise.


Malcolm Parker was the inaugural Head of the Discipline of Medical Ethics, Law and Professional Practice in the School of Medicine UQ, coordinating the development and teaching of courses in ethics, law & professional practice in the MBBS/MD program from 1994 to 2015. He is the immediate past president of AABHL, served on committees of the Medical Board of Queensland and the Medical Board of Australia, and was a long-serving director of the Postgraduate Medical Council of Queensland. He has published nationally and internationally in philosophy of medicine, bioethics, medical ethics, health law, and medical education.

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