'We don't want students to start to think about ethics after their degree'

January 19, 2007

Al Dowie has been appointed to co-ordinate ethics teaching across Scotland's five medical schools

Two years on from the inquiry into how the doctor Harold Shipman was able to commit so many murders, the medical profession has been beset by a host of proposals for tighter regulations, from registers of patients' deaths to rules on controlled drugs. But Glasgow University medical lecturer Al Dowie, who is co-ordinating ethics teaching across Scotland's five medical schools, warned that policies resulting from an unprecedented case, such as Shipman, may place an unnecessary burden on doctors who are doing their job well and safely.

Surveys have revealed, for example, that some GPs no longer carry opiates with them when they visit patients. "That raises the question of palliative treatment for patients in great pain. Are they going to be in pain for longer because (drugs) are not available there and then?" Dr Dowie asked.

Dr Dowie's post, co-ordinating ethics teaching at Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews universities' medical schools, has been funded by the Medical and Dental Defence Union of Scotland, and focuses on medical ethics, law and risk.

"Ethics in the health professions is more scrutinised today than ever, with practitioners being increasingly responsible to patients and governing bodies," Dr Dowie said. "We don't want students to start thinking about this after they get their degree."

Dr Dowie stressed that ethics had always had a place in the medical curriculum. "All the schools are committed to this and have dedicated staff. This is a matter of getting schools to share wisdom and practice in a more formal, structured way."

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