A new approach to teaching ethics

Published on March 20, 2013
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Responding to concerns about a perceived lack of training in veterinary ethics, the Society for Veterinary Medical Ethics is scheduled to release an online course in April that introduces veterinarians and veterinary students to common ethical concerns they may experience in practice.

The course was the brainchild of former SVME president Dr. John McCarthy, who died before it could be finished. When Dr. Alice Villalobos became SVME president in 2010, she saw the potential in the project and helped guide it to completion.

Written by multiple authors, the seven-module course is designed to provide a basic framework for examining and resolving ethical dilemmas. Rather than steering users in a preferred direction, the course allows them to draw their own personal conclusions.

Caitlin Dooley, a third-year veterinary student at Washington State University, appreciates the opportunity to receive extracurricular ethics training. After learning the technique for dewclaw removal and tail docking last year, for instance, her professor mentioned that “this is something you all need to decide for yourselves—whether or not you want to perform these procedures.”

Unsure how to resolve the question for herself, Dooley quickly saw the potential benefits of ethics training. “I think it’s important to have a process of knowing: Do I want to do this? Or most importantly, for each person to have an understanding of how to decide whether it’s right or wrong.”

Sylvie Cloutier, PhD, agrees there is merit to an online course. She tells JAVMA News, “We need to find ways to provide the essential tools for students—not only how to deal with ethical issues, but also, where to find information to reach these conclusions.”

Some within the ethics community argue that an online forum may not be the optimal method for delivering this information. At the forefront is Bernard Rollin, PhD, who believes the study of ethics inherently requires interpersonal contact and discussion. He recommends redesigning veterinary curricula to remove ethics as a separate course and integrate the topic into existing coursework.

While some members of the SVME agree with Dr. Rollin in theory, most think a complete overhaul of the veterinary curriculum is unlikely in the present academic environment. “At the very least, the online course is a step in the right direction,” Dr. Villalobos explains.

The SVME is working to attain certification from the Registry of Approved Continuing Education so that veterinarians who successfully complete the series can receive continuing education credit.

Ultimately, Dr. Villalobos hopes that the course will expand beyond veterinarians and veterinary students, envisioning a series that “may be written specifically for paraprofessionals such as veterinary technicians, veterinary assistants, groomers, pet store and kennel personnel.”

The SVME online course will be available via the organization’s website, www.svme.org. The course will carry a nominal fee to users to offset the cost of acquiring CE credit. Each module is expected to require one to two hours to complete.

Michael J. White is a second-year veterinary student at Kansas State University and a recent JAVMA News extern.