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Medical Ethics: Career Options and Requirements for Medical Ethicists

Medical ethics is an interdisciplinary study involving clinical, research and legal professionals. Continue reading for an overview of the degree programs, as well as career and salary info for some career options for graduates.

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Careers in medical ethics include medical ethics consultants, medical ethics professors and medical ethics lawyers. A bachelor's degree is required to be a medical ethics consultant, while advanced degrees or needed to be a medical ethics professor. A medical ethics lawyer must have a law degree and law license.

Essential Information

Ethicists draft institutional policies, consult on individual cases and provide regulatory oversight. Those interested in this field commonly complete advanced degree programs; however, educational requirements vary by discipline.

Career Medical Ethics Consultant Medical Ethics Professor Medical Ethics Lawyer
Education Bachelor's Degree
Advanced Degree (recommended)
Doctorate in Philosophy Bachelor's Degree
Law Degree
Projected Job Growth from 2014-2024* 17% for medical and health service managers 19% for postsecondary health specialties instructors 6%
Median Salary $94,500 (2015)* for medical and health service managers $134,667 (2016)** $115,820 (2015)*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **Salary.com

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Career Options

A career in medical ethics generally involves advanced degrees in a diversity of fields related to healthcare. Salaries vary widely by position; a few career options are presented below.

Medical Ethics Consultant

Clinical care and research facilities often have an institutional ethics committee (IEC) or an institutional review board (IRB). These groups are staffed with a variety of medical professionals, including doctors, nurses and social workers.

IEC staffers draft internal ethics policies and may consult on individual patient cases. For example, they may advise physicians on care options for a terminally ill patient or consult family members who must make critical decisions on behalf of a patient.

IRB members regulate and consult on clinical research projects involving human subjects. They ensure research proposals take ethical protocols into account and monitor projects to ensure these protocols are maintained. For example, they may oversee treatment of human test subjects or evaluate ethical and safety issues surrounding human stem-cell research.

Requirements

According to the professor of biomedical ethics at the University of Virginia, healthcare experience provides an advantage for those seeking a career in medical ethics. An educational background in law or philosophy can qualify candidates for applied ethics positions, though requirements vary. All clinical healthcare careers require licensure from a state board.

Most IEC or IRB members have completed at least a bachelor's degree program. Registered nurses must complete at least a diploma program; however, completion of a nursing bachelor's degree program can increase opportunities for career advancement.

Physicians must complete up to eight years of combined undergraduate and medical school, plus another 3-8 years of residency. Medical researchers are generally expected to complete advanced degree programs. Medical schools may have ethics as a concentration or fellowship program.

Career and Salary Information

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that registered nurses will see a 16% increase in jobs from 2014-2024, a rate that's much faster than average when compared to all occupations during that same decade; the median salary for registered nurses was $67,490 in 2015 (www.bls.gov). The agency estimated that physician jobs will increase 14% from 2014-2024. According to the BLS, the mean salary for a physician can vary by area of practice; surgeons earned a mean salary of $247,520 in 2015, while pediatricians earned a mean salary of $183,180. Medical scientist jobs are expected to increase 8% from 2014-2024, and the median salary for this career was $82,240 in 2015, according to the BLS.

Public Policy

Government agencies and international policy organizations employ experienced professionals from the disciplines of health, law, education and philosophy to draft and regulate ethics policies for healthcare and health-related science. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization are among the national and international bodies with medical ethics or bioethics committees.

Requirements

Committees are generally staffed with professionals who have completed at least one graduate-level degree program. Common fields of study include public health and law; these degrees may be combined with a Doctor of Medicine.

Medical Ethics Professor

Ethics professionals in academia lead research initiatives on ethics and provide ethics training for students. Many universities offer ethics degree programs at the graduate level. Some universities may have a medical ethics center affiliated with a medical school; others feature medical ethics studies as part of the law, public health or humanities departments.

Requirements

Faculty positions generally require the completion of a Doctor of Philosophy program. Students interested in an academic career should first complete their education in a specific field, such as philosophy or a life science, rather than pursue ethics exclusively.

Career and Salary Information

The BLS predicts that the number of jobs for postsecondary health specialties teachers will grow 19% from 2014-2024, a rate that's better than average. In October 2016, Salary.com reported that medical ethics professors who earned salaries in the 25th-75th percentile range took home $108,543-$159,142, with a median figure of $134,667.

Medical Ethics Lawyer

Institutional ethics groups often include legal professionals alongside medical and science experts to consult on cases and create policy. Some law firms specialize in ethics-related health issues. Medical ethics issues with legal ramifications include end-of-life decisions, brain death and informed consent.

Requirements

All lawyers complete approximately seven years of combined undergraduate and graduate law education. In order to practice, individuals earn a Juris Doctorate and then pass an exam to be admitted into their state's bar association.

Career and Salary Information

The BLS expects that the number of jobs available for lawyers will increase 6% from 2014-2024. The agency also reported that in May 2015, the median annual salary for lawyers was $115,820.

Medical ethics professionals are highly trained in their field, with a minimum of a bachelor's degree required to be a medical ethics consultant. Additional education is required to be a medical ethics professor or medical ethics lawyer.

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