In the 1970s, the case of Karen Ann Quinlan brought the issue of medical ethics into the national spotlight when the parents of the 21-year-old woman, who was in a permanent vegetative state, requested she be removed from the ventilator that was keeping her alive. Today, due to advances in medical science and technology, healthcare professionals are increasingly facing new and challenging ethical dilemmas in providing care for their patients.
Students of all majors at Niagara University have the opportunity to deepen their understanding of these complex issues and challenges by participating in the Ethics in Medicine and Healthcare Program, offered through the university’s Rose Bente Lee Ostapenko Center for Ethics in Medicine and Healthcare. Those who complete the extracurricular academic program are recognized with a special distinction on their transcripts, an award certificate, and a pin.
“The Ethics in Medicine and Healthcare Program provides a very unique academic experience for NU students, one that goes beyond their traditional course work,” said Dr. James Delaney, professor of philosophy and endowed director of professional ethics. “One of the things that students in the program consistently say they value is its interdisciplinary nature. They are able to engage with experts from a wide variety of academic and professional backgrounds. This allows them to learn about the multitude of perspectives that are relevant for thinking about the ethical challenges involved in medicine and in promoting health and wellness more generally. While there are no easy answers to these challenges, we stress the importance of deepening an understanding and thinking critically about them. Helping our students to do this is really the biggest benefit of the program.”
Students in the program attend a minimum of five events organized by the center and complete a portfolio of written assignments. Launched in spring of 2018, the center was established through a gift from philanthropist Rose Bente Lee Ostapenko and is dedicated to investigating and fostering discussions about the ethical issues related to healthcare and medicine facing our local and global communities. Over the past two years, offerings included a symposium on the impact of Christianity on the doctor-patient relationship; panel discussions on the role of hospital chaplains, the work of hospital ethics committees, ethical issues around medical mission trips, and the opioid crisis; and guest speakers who presented on the challenges of medical ethics involved in patient safety and defining death, the history of Black birth, the steps necessary to move research into clinical practice, CRISPR gene-editing technology, and the New York State Reproductive Health Act of 2019.
Panel discussions seem to be the favorite of students, who enjoy hearing multiple perspectives on often controversial topics. Many noted that their preconceived ideas were changed as a result of hearing from experts in the various fields, or that they left the event with a more complete understanding of the implications of a particular issue.
“This program has helped me see that there are factors, not just biological ones, that affect healthcare and the health of individuals,” said Liz DiCarlo, a biology major who plans to go to graduate school for epidemiology. “The criminal justice system, environmental factors, socioeconomic status, and other (topics) which have been discussed in panels have opened my eyes to see that medical issues are never black and white. Every situation is different and has many grey areas clouding it. Niagara University’s mission has helped me to face these issues by trying to look at a situation with empathy and an unbiased view.”
Aspiring veterinarian Alexandra Laubert was so inspired by the opioid panel that she began volunteering at Immaculata House, a residence for recovering addicts and one of the agencies represented on the panel, and Caroline Leitch noted that the knowledge she gained from the panelists enabled her to think more critically about the issues discussed.
“Each provided me with a different perspective on various medical topics and new knowledge that I was able to carry out with me,” she said.
Approximately 100 students are currently enrolled in the program. While they are primarily biology and nursing students, the program also attracts “a nice cross-section of students with different backgrounds,” said Dr. Delaney.
Emma Simoneaux noted that the information she gained will help her to assist people as a social worker.
“Issues related to medicine and healthcare will come with the job,” she said, noting that the population she plans to serve, the homeless, often experiences poverty, mental and physical health issues, and substance abuse issues. “This program has helped me greatly not only learn how to help the populations face challenges within the healthcare system, but it has also given me the extra knowledge that is going to be helpful in my future after graduation.”
Taking the course during the time of COVID-19 added a unique aspect to the program, as discussion about populations most affected by the virus and those most likely to receive treatment; allocation of resources such as personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators and testing; frontline workers who put their lives at risk to continue both healthcare and the economy; and other ethical healthcare issues were highlighted in national media, giving students the opportunity to discuss them as they unfolded.
These real-time discussions, as well as those they participate in throughout their time in the program, give students unique insight that will be valuable both in their professional and in their personal lives.
“The program … embodies Niagara University’s Catholic and Vincentian mission, which provides a lens for addressing ethical issues in medicine and healthcare via following its core values of spirituality, knowledge, creativity, integrity, and compassion,” said Logan Slother, who plans to work as a medical scribe in preparation for future studies to become a physician’s assistant. “These values teach students how to approach such ethical issues from a position of compassion, understanding, humility, and patience. My Niagara education has made me a better person in a myriad of ways, thanks in no small part to the Ethics in Medicine and Healthcare Program.”