Dr. Barbara Atkinson, founding dean of the UNLV School of Medicine, is uniquely experienced in grappling with such issues — and she’s making sure UNLV’s future doctors will be, too.
Atkinson is one of 10 members on President Barack Obama’s Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, which brings together national leaders in medicine, law, and ethics as policy advisors.
As a commission member, Atkinson said, “I realized there were many more bioethical issues than the ones we'd been traditionally teaching in medical school, such as reproductive biology, stem cell research, and end-of-life issues.” She participated in commission studies ranging from the ethics of synthetic biology and emerging technologies, to conducting clinical trials on children, to privacy and security issues related to human genome sequencing, to the ethical and societal implications of brain research.
Those experiences are guiding the curriculum planning at the UNLV School of Medicine. “What I want to impart to our students is how broad that whole field is today.”
To help make that happen, Maneesha Sakhuja, a research analyst for the commission, will join the UNLV School of Medicine’s faculty to develop its bioethics curriculum. Some of the issues under the commission’s purview will be explored through the patient case studies that are part of the school's problem-based learning model.
Atkinson noted that a touchstone of the school’s bioethics curriculum is a focus on the framework — the medical, legal, and cultural aspects — that surround any given issue. “It’s not so much a question of knowing what ethical decisions to make, but rather to think about the parameters within which you can make ethical decisions.”
The approach is similar to the one the commission used in 2012 when investigating safeguards for children in research involving bioterrorism countermeasures, including an anthrax vaccine. The commission began with a series of questions: What is the current standard for conducting clinical trials on children? What are the legal issues involved? Are there any cultural considerations? In addition, there are some fundamental ethical principles, called the Belmont Principles, which apply to any use of human subjects in research, such as protecting the autonomy of all test subjects and treating them with courtesy and respect. The commission also sought the advice of public health ethics experts, pediatric research scientists, and members of government agencies, and the public. Only after identifying the boundaries, did the commission start deliberating the issues, and ultimately make several recommendations.
This approach of first establishing a framework around ethics will be an important part of the bioethics training at the school. “What we want to do is instill in our students the idea of looking at an issue from all sides”, Atkinson said. “Then we want them to use a set of ethical principles as a guide in reaching decisions. We want our students to broaden their outlook, and not just start with individual biases. It's really the opening of their minds about how to think about ethics and how to think about it in the broadest sense.”