Original Article

Ethical and Professional Issues Encountered by Fourth-Year Medical Students during a Critical Care Clerkship before and during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Authors: Rachel A. Hadler, MD, Laura A. Shinkunas, MS, Lauris C. Kaldjian, MD, PhD, Erica M. Carlisle, MD


Objectives: The objective of this study was to describe ethical and professional issues encountered and the ethical and professional values cited by medical students during their critical care clerkship, with a comparison of issues encountered before and during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.

Methods: In this single-center, retrospective mixed-methods study, two investigators at a midwestern US academic medical center performed qualitative content analysis on reflections written by fourth-year medical students about ethical and professional issues encountered during their critical care rotations between March 2016 and September 2021. We also analyzed the ethical/professional values mentioned in their reflections. Descriptive and inferential (χ2) statistics were performed to examine differences in issues and values cited before and during the pandemic.

Results: Respondents highlighted several key themes identified in prior studies, including decision making (64.1%), communication between clinicians and families (52.2%), and justice-related issues (32.1%), as well as interdisciplinary communication (25.7%) and issues related to the role of students in the intensive care unit (6.1%). Six novel subthemes were identified in this group, predominantly related to resource availability and end-of-life care. Of 343 reflections, 69% were written before the pandemic. Analysis of ethical and professional issues before and during COVID were notable for several significant differences, including increased discussion of inadequate tools/supplies/equipment (1.3% before vs 17.6% during, P = 0.005) and/or access to care (3.9% before vs 17.6% during, P = 0.03) and increased concerns about the tension between law and ethics (21.2% before vs 41.2% during, P = 0.028). Primacy of patient welfare (49.8% before vs 47.2% during, P = 0.659) and patient autonomy (51.1% before vs 38.9% during, P = 0.036) were the most commonly cited ethical principles in both time frames, often discussed concurrently and in tension.

Conclusions: Although the COVID-19 pandemic was associated with increased reflection by medical students about resources in the intensive care unit, their perception of ethical issues arising in critical illness remained largely focused on enduring challenges in shared decision-making. These findings should be considered when developing ethics curricula for critical care rotations.
Posted in: Infectious Disease136

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