Medical Ethicist: Career and Salary Facts

Explore the career requirements for medical ethicists. Get the facts about education requirements, potential salary and job duties to determine if this is the right career for you Schools offering Health Policy degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Is a Medical Ethicist?

Medical ethicists study morals and values related to the practice of medicine. They integrate ideas from history, philosophy, theology and sociology in order to make judgments about treatment options and medical research. They may work as professors in universities or as private consultants for medical institutions and other healthcare-related organizations. In some cases, they share their findings with patients, caregivers and medical professionals through direct discussions, but they may also publish books or articles in academic journals. Topics of interest include stem cell research, euthanasia and medical privacy. The following chart describes some career expectations for medical ethicists.

Degree Required Master's or doctorate degree
Education Field of Study Health ethics, medicine, surgery, pharmacy
Training Required Coursework in ethics, research
Key Skills Good moral center, patience, problem-solving, communication
Median Salary (2015) $71,465 (for all clinical ethicists)*

Source: *Salary.com.

What Education Do I Need to Be a Medical Ethicist?

Professionals in medical ethics frequently hold advanced graduate degrees in healthcare. For example, medical ethicists may hold a Doctor of Medicine, Doctor of Dental Surgery, Doctor of Dental Medicine or Doctor of Pharmacy. You also could earn a Ph.D. or an advanced degree in nursing, as well as a degree from a law school.

If you opt to attend medical school, you'll probably take an ethics course, according to a study published by the Association of American Medical Colleges, which reported that 79% of medical schools in the United States required students to take at least one course in ethics as of 2002 (www.aamc.org). You also can find formal graduate programs in ethics, which combine theory and clinical practice. In these programs, you might be involved in actual ethical decision-making with cases at hospitals or institutional review boards.

Coursework in an ethics program is often interdisciplinary. You may address such issues as genetics, euthanasia, abortion, healthcare, animal rights, human experimentation, cloning, transplants, stem cell research, end-of-life questions, informed consent and rights of the unborn.

Where Would I Work?

Workplaces for medical ethicists include colleges, universities, government offices, health agencies, private practices and healthcare facilities, according to the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities (ASBH). Medical ethicists may also work for businesses, such as pharmaceutical companies.

Many hospitals have formal ethics committees. You may find medical ethicists on these committees, as well as other healthcare professionals, ordained clergy and members of the public.

As a medical ethicist, you likely would not spend all your time on clinical cases. In a 2008 survey, the ASBH found that these professionals spent almost half their time on academic teaching or research on bioethics (www.asbh.org).

What Skills Do I Need?

As a medical ethicist, you'll need to be open-minded. Since you'll be helping patients, professionals and institutions make decisions, you'll need to be able to work with a variety of patients and their families, many of whom will be under stress. You'll also need to be patient, sensitive and caring as you explain treatment options and their ethical implications.

What Can I Expect to Earn?

According to Salary.coms February 2017 data, medical ethicists made a median salary of $71,465, while those working as a professor of medical ethics earned a median income of $135,901 per year. This is conditional to a medical ethicists' experience in the field.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Instead of becoming a medical ethicist, you could consider practicing medicine yourself, which involves diagnosing and treating patients' illnesses or injuries. By completing four years of medical school and a residency in a subfield of interest, you could become licensed to work as a family doctor, surgeon, psychiatrist or other medical professional. Alternatively, if you are interested in research, you could become a medical scientist. Some conduct biology- or chemistry-based studies related to disease mechanisms and drug efficacy, while others focus on public health topics, such as health outcomes at hospitals in urban or rural settings, by examining large datasets. Medical scientists need to have a doctoral degree, which can be either a Ph.D. or an M.D. degree.

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