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U.S. Docs Taught Little About Wartime Ethics

Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo are bringing these issues to the fore, study authors say

MONDAY, Oct. 29 (HealthDay News) -- Too few American medical students receive adequate instruction about military medical ethics and a physician's ethical duties under the Geneva Conventions, say Harvard Medical School researchers.

They surveyed students at eight medical schools across the United States and found that 94 percent had received less than one hour of instruction about military medical ethics.

Among their other findings:

  • Only 37 percent of medical students could correctly identify that the Geneva Conventions apply irrespective of whether war had formally been declared.
  • 33.8 percent didn't know that the Geneva Conventions state that physicians should "treat the sickest first, regardless of nationality."
  • 37 percent didn't know that the Geneva Conventions prohibit ever threatening or demeaning prisoners, or depriving them of food or water for any length of time.
  • 33.9 percent couldn't state when they would be required to disobey an unethical order from a superior.

"The abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have galvanized much of the world against the U.S. Those abuses, in part abetted by physicians, will likely go down as one of our country's most egregious ethical lapses," lead author Dr. J. Wesley Boyd said in a prepared statement.

"The dearth of teaching about these issues in medical schools is a travesty, and medical schools need to begin teaching military medical ethics to ensure all physicians have a solid understanding of their ethical obligations in times of war," Boyd said.

The study is published in an upcoming issue of the International Journal of Health Services.

More information

Here's the American Medical Associations policy statement on torture.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: Cambridge Health Alliance, news release, Oct. 29, 2007

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