Posted on Jun 28, 2001

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SCHENECTADY, N.Y. (June 28, 2001) – The Center for Bioethics and Clinical Leadership at Union College and the Center for Medical Ethics at Albany Medical College (AMC) have created a distance master's program in bioethics – the second in the nation and the first in the Northeast. It provides distance learning and campus-based education in bioethics for doctors, health care administrators, lawyers, nurses, pharmacists, researchers, and students in graduate and professional programs.

Advanced technology and newer medications, burgeoning knowledge about disease and human biology, and the business of medicine have conspired to create unprecedented ethical concerns.

“Bioethics has grown remarkably in the last two decades, ” said Robert Baker, Ph.D., Union professor of philosophy and co-director of the new master's program. “Increasingly, professionals in the health care field are called upon to act as bioethical experts, providing ethics consultations and serving on ethics committees and institutional review boards despite having, in many cases, little or no formal education in bioethics. This program offers much-needed educational opportunities for those currently providing bioethics services or making policy.”

Patients, families and health care providers face more ethical decisions than ever before, according to Wayne Shelton, Ph.D., co-director of the bioethics program, associate professor of medicine, and associate director of The Center for Medical Ethics, Education and Research at Albany Medical College.

“Instead of asking 'what can be done,' they may find themselves asking 'what should be done?'” Shelton said.

Shelton said these questions can arise at any time. For instance, it might be as a loved one enters the final stages of a terminal disease or as a patient considers the appropriateness of a major medical intervention. For others, it might be as they complete a Health Care Proxy or Living Will.

He said most large medical centers like Albany Med have highly trained staff to focus on these issues, however, smaller community hospitals often do not.

The program, approved by the New York State Education Department, begins August 5 with a two-week on-campus session at both Albany Med and Union in clinical bioethics. The initial class will include about 10 to 12 students; the program is designed to eventually serve up to 15 students per class. Graduates will receive a Master of Science (M.S.) degree in bioethics from AMC and Union College.

Students will be taught by professors from institutions in The Northeast Bioethics Consortium, which was created in 1999. Members currently include Union College, Albany Medical College, Albany Law School and the philosophy department at the University at Albany. Agreements are being developed to extend the consortium to include centers in New York City and Rochester.

“This program is the result of the successful collaboration of these prestigious institutions,” Union College President Roger Hull said. “Through the innovative use of technology, we have created a pioneering program in bioethics higher education that is responsive to the needs of professionals working in the region.”

“Graduating from a program like this can open doors for professionals. People with expertise in this area will be increasingly in demand,” said Vincent Verdile, M.D., interim dean of Albany Medical College.

By combining clinical residencies with on-line course instruction, the bioethics master's program addresses the needs of working health care professionals and students who would otherwise be unable to participate in campus-based programs due to work considerations. Versions of all courses will be offered either in short summer sessions or through distance learning.

Complicating matters further is the fact that access to graduate education in bioethics is extremely difficult, according to Baker. “The need for this program is tremendous since there is no program offering a master's degree in bioethics in the entire Upstate New York area, Vermont, or Western Massachusetts,” he said.

“Moreover, because of the demanding nature of their positions, health care professionals have few, if any, opportunities to take campus-based courses in bioethics, much less earn a degree in the field.

The distance learning component makes the program accessible for working professionals, particularly those located in Upstate New York.”

The curriculum for the AMC/Union College bioethics master's is designed to insure advanced level competence in the skills and fields of knowledge identified as essential in a report by the American Society of Bioethics and Humanities (ASBH).

While distance learning will make up much of the AMC/Union program, students also will be required to train on-site with bioethicists at Albany Med or another institution in the Northeast Consortium to gain practical experience in clinical ethics.

“While the knowledge required for clinical ethics consultation can be conveyed through on-line instruction, the skills necessary require close supervision by experienced clinical ethicists,” Baker said. “There is no in-class substitute for real-life mediations of human tragedy.”

Union's Graduate Management Institute (GMI) offers a master of science in clinical leadership and the master of science in bioethics, a master of business administration in management and in health systems. Both MBAs are AACSB accredited. GMI stresses intensive, individualized attention; the average class size is 15 students.

The Albany Medical Center is northeastern New York's only academic health sciences center. It consists of one of the nation's oldest medical schools, the Albany Medical College; one of New York's largest teaching hospitals, the Albany Medical Center Hospital; and one of the Capital Region's most active fund raising organizations, the Albany Medical Center Foundation, Inc.

Contacts: Bill Schwarz
Union College, 388-6749
Beth Engeler
Albany Med. Center, 262-3421