Autumn 2016

Ethics and Medicine

A letter to readers

Ethics Issue

  • by Barbara Mcneil
  • 2 minute read

Not so long ago, Harvard researchers found what they called the morning morality effect; that is, it’s easier for us to resist moral temptations in the morning, before what the researchers described as the cumulative effect of the day’s unremarkable experiences deplete our moral reserves.

This might give physicians pause. Our day-to-day activities, whether in the clinic or the laboratory, are filled with dilemmas that challenge our training in how to make ethical decisions—and our moral fiber.

To help safeguard ourselves from this apparent circadian cycle, we train and we teach. A glance at the topics our first-year students confront in the Pathways curriculum’s social and population sciences courses gives insight into the range of issues the School helps them prepare for: truth-telling, reproductive ethics, patients’ capacity for informed decision making, informed consent, and confidentiality.

Our physician-researchers also prepare, many as they were themselves prepared: ensure the work is safe before it’s broadly applied, be a voice for responsible science, and train the next generation to excel as researchers and as science-savvy members of the public.

We look at these and other ethical aspects of medicine in this issue of Harvard Medicine. Experts weigh in on the relevance of the dead-donor rule given advances in life-sustaining technologies and our understanding of the growing difficulties of knowing when the heart or the brain truly stops functioning. Others discuss the ethics of access to reproductive technologies, and one, an alumna, considers the responsibilities that physician-writers have to patients and their stories.

We also take a moment to celebrate an anniversary. The HMS Department of Neurobiology is marking its fiftieth year. Those many decades ago, it became the first academic department in the nation to take a multidisciplinary approach to the study of the brain. It remains a strong example of the vision and innovation that underlie the work of our Quad scientists.

Barbara McNeil was acting dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Harvard University