Medical Ethics Questions: How to Nail Them in Your Med School Interview

November 30, 2022


Reviewed by:

Luke Hartstein

Former Admissions Committee Member, NYU Grossman School of Medicine

Reviewed: 6/3/22

Wondering how to answer questions about ethical dilemmas in medicine? Read on to learn how to tactfully answer ethics questions in your medical school interview! 

Ethics questions are often considered the most challenging that you may be asked in your medical school interviews. Luckily, there are methods to prepare for ethics questions. 

If you're heading into interview season feeling a little shaky in the ethics department, we've got you covered. Here we'll go over everything you need to know about questions about medical ethics in med school interviews, from how to prepare for them to examples and more. Let's get started!

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Approaching Ethics Questions in Medical Interviews

Medical schools ask ethics questions during interviews to get a sense of your understanding of ethical reasoning. When asked about complex ethical dilemmas, your interviewer will not expect every candidate to have the same "correct" answer. Just ensure your response can be backed by ethical reasoning. 

As you may know, the four pillars of medical ethics are:

  • Beneficence (to do good)
  • Non-maleficence (to not harm)
  • Autonomy (respecting the patient's right to self-determination)
  • Justice (ensuring fairness)

Ethics questions are about more than your moral compass. When contemplating the question, lean on the four medical ethics pillars to demonstrate professionalism and your ethics knowledge. 

It’s important to note that your interviewer may not be looking for an opinion right away. Ethical dilemmas often have multiple valid courses of action. Unless they specifically ask, your interviewer is likely more interested in your understanding of ethics than your personal opinion.

Medical School Interview Ethics Questions to Expect

Here we'll review some examples of healthcare ethical issues questions and how to answer them. Stay updated on current hot topics in the medical world, as you'll likely be asked about them in your medical school interview.

“An 86 year-old patient has been battling cancer with chemotherapy treatments for over a year. There has been little progress, and the patient is visibly suffering every day. One day the patient asks for doctor-assisted suicide. What do you do?”

Euthanasia is a major ethical dilemma; every pillar of ethics battles another in this debate. Beneficence tells us to do good and ease their suffering. Non-maleficence tells us not to harm the patient, which directly conflicts with beneficence and autonomy since you wouldn't be respecting the patient's free will by refusing.

The easiest way to start tackling this issue is with legality. Euthanasia is legal in a handful of countries and some states. Depending on where you are, you may be able to carry out this procedure without miscarrying justice.

After determining legality, assessing the patient's mental capacity is necessary to determine their ability to make a sound decision. Remember to keep your response to the technical process and avoid inserting personal opinions unless specifically asked.

“You’re treating a 13 year old patient. Although the patient is below the legal age of consent, they reveal to you that they are sexually active. Do you confront their parents although it would mean breaching doctor-patient confidentiality?”

In this scenario, there are two main factors to consider. On the one hand, the patient is engaging in illegal underage activities that may put their safety at risk. On the other hand, the patient trusts you with this information, and you don’t want to break doctor-patient confidentiality. 

Beneficence means that, as a doctor, you must promote the course of action you believe is in the patient's best interest. In this case, that would mean encouraging the underage patient to inform their legal guardians they’re sexually active as long as they feel safe doing so. 

The mental well-being of the young patient is at risk since the situation suggests the patient could be taken advantage of. Doctors can offer contraception and sexual health advice without notifying the legal guardians. However, confidentiality can be breached if the patient's safety is at risk. 

“A patient with depression is refusing treatment/medication and has expressed severe suicidal ideation in their visit with you. You are concerned about their well-being; what do you do?”

In this scenario, there are two conflicting factors – your concern for the patient’s wellness versus their refusal of treatment. Of the four pillars, the most pressing are beneficence, non-maleficence, and autonomy in this situation. 

Looking through the lens of autonomy, the patient’s refusal of treatment should be respected; however, medical ethics scenarios are never that straightforward. 

Beneficence means you must do what’s best for the patient; in this scenario, it would be worth ensuring the patient understands all the treatment options available. To do good and not harm, you must consider the patient’s risk level of harming themselves must be weighed against potentially breaking confidentiality to protect their well-being. 

“You have the choice to give a liver transplant to either a 76-year-old grandmother who is active in the community and a 30-year-old man struggling with addiction. How do you decide who gets the transplant?” 

This situation is tricky; unfortunately, your decision (should you need to make one) should not rely on the information given in this statement. Using justice as your compass, you must gather information about the condition of both parties; fairness is key here. 

To ensure you practice beneficence and non-maleficence, you must understand each patient’s condition. Is the 30-year-old patient suffering from liver failure? Would the 76-year-old be able to live for two or three more years without an immediate transplant? 

Since you don’t have all the information here, using if/when conditional statements is a great way to show your thought process and fairness. 

How To Prepare for Medical Ethics Questions

Although you may not know precisely what ethics questions you'll be asked, there are ways to prepare for them before your big day. Here are some ways to prepare for ethics questions in your medical school interview.

Focus on the Process

Formulate your answers around your thought process. No one expects you to solve a major medical issue in such a short time. Your interviewer wants to know how you'll approach an ethical dilemma. 

With that in mind, your answers should be thorough, professional, and thoughtful. Ethical dilemmas take time to process, so it's alright to take more time with this one than with previous questions. Lean on your knowledge of ethical medicine and explain your thought process while maintaining a level head. 

Know Your Material

Before your interview, thoroughly review what you already know about medical ethics. Referencing consequentialism, utilitarianism, and deontology in your response shows you've done your research.

Answer Practice Questions

The best way to prepare for medical school interview ethics questions is to practice. You can do this with a peer, a professional, a family member. It’s a good idea to record your answers to be analyzed for further learning and improvement. 

While preparing, it’s critical to practice answering ethics questions verbally. Answering practice questions out loud will help ease your anxiety on the day of your interview and help you avoid becoming flustered or stressed out. 

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Answering Medical Ethics Questions

It’s imperative to prepare for questions about medical ethics, so they don’t catch you off guard. Here are some common mistakes to avoid when you’re responding in your med school interview. 

Avoid Inserting Your Opinion Right Away

Some ethics questions are about controversial topics, and when answering, you may be tempted to insert your opinion immediately. Remember, the interviewer is more interested in your thought process than your opinion. 

For example, if you’re presented with a question about whether or not you should perform an abortion in a given situation, understand the facts. Apply ethical reasoning, consider the mental/physical health impacts, and maintain a neutral standpoint. Avoid stating your political opinions or personal preference.

Ensure You Understand the Question

Before responding, repeat the prompt back to your interviewer. This shows you understand the situation before formulating your response. Ethics questions can be complex and lengthy, so don't be afraid to ask for the prompt to be repeated. 

FAQs: Medical School Ethics Questions

Want to know more about med school ethics questions and how to navigate them? Then check out these FAQs! 

1. What Do I Say If I Don’t Know How to Answer a Medical Ethics Question?

Your interviewer is focused on your thought process. Don’t panic if you don’t know exactly what you’d do if faced with a challenging ethical dilemma. Rely on your ethics knowledge to formulate a thoughtful response. 

2. Is There a Wrong Way to Answer Medical Ethics Questions? 

Yes, your answer to an ethics question can be incorrect or rub your interviewer the wrong way. Stick to the four pillars of ethics when explaining how you’d handle the ethical dilemma, and avoid inserting your personal opinion.

3. What Is a Medical Ethics Violation?

A medical ethics violation is an action taken by a doctor that violates the patient's right to proper care. Some examples of medical ethics violations are discrimination, negligence, treating a patient who has refused said treatment, a doctor making sexual contact with a patient, or not upholding their ethical duties as physicians.

4. What Is Medical Law and Ethics?

According to Oxford, medical law and ethics "considers the rights of patients and responsibilities of doctors with reference to complex moral debate." In other words, doing what’s ethical doesn’t always comply with the law. 

5. How Can I Study for Medical Ethics Questions?

The best way to study ethics questions is to review practice questions with a colleague or a professional interview coach

6. Can Ethics Questions Make or Break My Medical School Interview?

There are many factors medical schools consider before making final decisions. One “poor” answer won’t overshadow your entire interview, but you should avoid personal opinions and stick to the four pillars of ethics. 

7. How Do You Approach Medical Ethics Questions? 

Always begin by determining how the situation fits into the four pillars of medical ethics. Remember not to launch into your explanation by leading with your personal opinion; consider how beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice play a role in your answers first. 

Final Thoughts 

Ethical dilemmas in medicine questions deserve thoughtful answers that assess the problem using the four pillars of ethics. As a physician, your future will be full of ethical dilemmas, just like the ones you'll be asked about in your interview. Don't worry; you're not expected to know all the answers just yet.

Use practice questions and review your answers to help ease anxiety. Your job here is to demonstrate your ability to follow protocol and remain professional. Good luck with your interviews!

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