What is Bioethics?

Terminology: Medical Ethics, Bioethics, Medical Humanities

Many terms are related to bioethics and are sometimes used interchangeably although there are subtleties of meaning that we tease out below. In general, bioethics has become the overarching term under which the others are captured.

Medical Ethics refers to the ethics of the physician-patient relationship or the provider-patient relationship, includes all general duties a provider has to a patient, e.g., duty help the patient and avoid harming him or her, as well as specific rules of conduct, e.g., duties of confidentiality. Medical ethics is an old and traditional concept with a pedigree that dates back to ancient Greece.

Health Care Ethics is nearly co-extensive with medical ethics but is the preferred term when one aims to be inclusive of other health-care providers such as nurses and physician-assistants or other members of the health-care team or supporters of the health-care organization who have duties to patients, e.g., health-care administrators, chaplains, and others.

Medical Humanities was initially coined to cover philosophical, literary, and humanistic approaches to problems in medicine. As such, medical humanities was thought to include bioethics since ethics is often conceived as an area of study in philosophy and philosophy is in the humanities. However, the usage of the term medical humanities has become more specialized. Now it mainly refers to the use of literature, creative writing or journaling, poetry, and film to increase appreciation for the humanistic, interpersonal, or empathetic aspects of medicine.

Bioethics literally means "life ethics." It is usually used in a way that includes medical ethics as a subset. (For this reason, you also see the term "biomedical ethics.") As the more general category, bioethics seems to include additional issues that are not necessarily a part of medical ethics, e.g., research ethics, ethical issues related to new scientific techniques such as cloning, public health issues and environmental policy. In general usage, persons may sometimes try to contrast bioethics with medical ethics by seeing the former as a more general and philosophical approach to the same issues that the latter considers from a strictly clinical case-oriented approach. For instance, we can talk about ethical issues related to the end-of-life from a general philosophical approach, e.g., what kind of society do we become if physician-assisted suicide becomes more common than hospice care? Or from a more clinical perspective that focuses on specific patients, e.g., how should a doctor respond when patients ask for help in ending their lives?

For most purposes, bioethics can be seen as a general category of which medical ethics is a subset. When talking about issues in medical ethics, you will often find the terms used interchangeably.

What’s New about Bioethics?

As we’ve mentioned, ethical issues in the delivery of medicine go back more than a couple of thousand years. However, as was first noted by the contemporary casuist, Al Jonsen, ancient medical ethics was not a matter debated in the public square.  Contemporary bioethics is different in that it engages the public. Such ethical issues are matters of concern at the bedside, in the board room, in legislatures, and debated around the dinner table. The work of bioethicists contributes to these debates but ultimately, bioethics is an ongoing societal dialogue that strives for and often achieves, a pragmatic consensus.  It is this institutional and public nature of bioethics that leads so many to seek advanced education concerning bioethics such as graduate degrees.

As part of our mission, the Neiswanger Institute for Bioethics at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine offers an online master's degree program and a hybrid doctoral degree in bioethics and health policy, as well as online certificate programs for health care professionals.  Our innovative online environment supports practical education and provides valuable engagement and networking among peers and experts in the field of bioethics and health policy.

For more information about our online graduate degrees and certificate programs in medical ethics, REQUEST INFORMATION or register for one of our upcoming online open house webinars.