What is Bioethics?

Ethics for medical and policy issues

Bioethics looks at questions about values and what matters in medicine, biological research, care of people who cannot speak up for themselves (the severely mentally ill, small children, prisoners) and similar topics. The word is made up of two parts: “bio” (from the Greek word for “life”) and “ethics”, so it is the study of ethics as it relates to living things.

What do bioethicists study?

Some of the specific issues our faculty study are:

  • Interactions between health care providers and patients
  • Helping patients and their families address end-of-life issues
  • Figuring out the “best” way to allocate health care resources
  • Determining what balance of risk to benefit is appropriate in a medical treatment or preventive measures
  • Examining the role and impact of health policy on medical care
  • Balancing the needs of communities with appropriate research
  • Challenging stereotypes and norms with respect to vulnerable populations, such as persons with disabilities and mental health issues

If you’ve ever seen a news story about healthcare allocation or heard about a friend’s experience at the doctor’s office, and thought that something “should have been” done a particular way, you’ve touched the surface of bioethics. Have you heard about the debates about “healthcare reform” or whether we can sustain our healthcare system? These debates include bioethics, because they are about things that matter to us.

Careers in bioethics

There are a few occupations which centre around bioethics, including:

  • Bioethicists, both theoretical and consulting
  • Philosophers, mostly in academia
  • Anthropologists, health law lawyers, sociologists

Some occupations related to bioethics include:

  • Health care providers: physicians, dentists, social workers, nurses, homecare workers
  • Researchers in medicine, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, genetics and biology
  • Politicians and civil servants who draft legislation about health, animal care and child welfare
  • Veterinarians, veterinary technicians, wildlife technicians and other animal care people

As part of Dalhousie Medical School, our faculty are primarily concerned with health and policy issues.