A degree in biomedical ethics comes in one of two flavors: Moral philosophy, with a dash of biology, or a science degree with an emphasis on ethics. Unlike some careers that have fixed and relatively inflexible education or certification requirements, many jobs in biomedical ethics require either a bachelor's or master's degree in moral philosophy, or any degree in a cognate discipline like sociology, psychology or political science. Regardless of the practitioner's academic focus, a biomedical ethicist evaluates choices based on fundamental principles of philosophy to help render culturally competent care.
Many large health systems employ full-time ethicists to assist doctors, nurses and families navigate tough decisions, usually about end-of-life care. A biomedical ethicist serving in a clinical capacity must be conversant in health care terminology and procedures and be adept at fostering communication among players -- staff as well as patients -- who approach a given problem from the perspective of their own background. For example, a clinical ethicist might help with decision-making about a patient in a persistent vegetative state following a stroke. The physician may believe ongoing care is futile. The family may want to keep the patient alive. The chaplain may support a family's desire to "wait for a miracle." The ethicist's task is to harmonize the different value systems to help guide everyone to a satisfactory resolution on behalf of the patient. Although hospital ethicists hail from many different academic backgrounds, many who function specifically as clinical ethicists often have at least a master's degree in bioethics or moral philosophy.
Research labs employ biomedical ethicists to assist with the lab's institutional review board. The IRB's primary task is to evaluate the protocols and suitability of a human-subjects experiment; the role of the ethicist on the IRB is to protect the moral rights of patients enrolled in the study. IRB ethicists are sometimes the moral gatekeepers when researchers want to try a risky procedure or drug on the theory that the risk to the experiment's participants is worth the potential long-run benefit to society as a whole if the experiment proves successful. Not all IRBs employ ethicists, and of those that seek the role, the voice of the ethicist may have little or no academic background in moral philosophy.
Biomedical ethicists support the ongoing professional development of doctors, nurses and social workers through targeted in-service training, seminars, online modules and similar delivery systems. Because most states require licensed providers to incur continuing-education credits to maintain licenses or certification, attending an ethics seminar helps clinicians keep up-to-date while they learn better ways to care for their patients. In this capacity, the ethicist is a teacher, training others in the basic techniques of value-based judgment and helping improve the ethical competency of clinical providers in an organization. Although degreed professionals sometimes work as clinical educators, many nursing ethicists have advanced-practice nursing degrees with special post-graduate or certification work in bioethics, but don't have a degree in ethics.
Although most hospital and nursing-home chaplains are ministers of a given faith tradition, some larger organizations hire an ethicist to serve on the chaplain's staff to serve as a bridge between a patient's spiritual care, and disciplines like nursing and social work. Some patients are more comfortable telling a chaplain, rather than a clinical provider, about a health or safety concern, or about risks like abuse in the home, so an ethicist on the chaplain's staff can help resolve these problems in a way that a priest or rabbi could not.
A biomedical ethicist need not work in the health-care industry. A degree in ethics -- which is a subset of philosophy -- often meets requirements for employment where a degree -- any degree -- is necessary for consideration. Given the training a biomedical ethicist receives in academic moral philosophy, folks with this background make great candidates for any job requiring the expert application of judgment or formal logic.
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