The rise of social media has led many professional associations to take closer looks at their ethical codes to ensure they contain the relevant language needed in order to hold its members accountable for their actions. One example of such is the decision by Stony Brook University Medical Center in Long Island, after it announced that was revising its ethics policy after one of its students posted a picture of herself posing next to a human cadaver during a dissection lab. Similar examples of this behavior have led to debates about what actions could be considered unethical by professional standards and which are protected by the Constitution. This post will examine one situation when a medical student may have acted unethically during a medical course involving cadavers and the ensuing response from both the courts as well as the professional medical associations.
Each year, approximately 20,000 people donate their bodies to medical schools for the benefit of research[i]. At the same time, an anonymous survey of 78 U.S. medical schools, nearly 60 percent of schools reported students posting unprofessional content to their online social media accounts[ii]. This is a growing concern because families agree to the corpse donation under the expectation that the remains will be handled with the utmost respect and confidentiality. Evidence of online posting show clear violations of both and the medical profession, including the particular learning centers, would be adversely affected if they cannot be trusted to maintain the appropriate level of professionalism.
Medical students will contest that postings on their personal social media pages are just that, personal, and that they should have the freedom to post their thoughts and ideas without recourse if those postings occur outside of the constraints of the formal classroom. Medical centers and professional associations more broadly disagree and posit that medical students have an ethical responsibility to uphold the standards of the field regardless of the location and any potential violation should be addressed. Next we will examine a case that illustrates how laws and ethical codes can work in tandem to maintain the level of professional behavior and hold individuals accountable for potential breaches of those expectations.
Case: Tatro v. University of Minnesota
Amanda Tatro was an undergraduate student attending the University of Minnesota and was enrolled in the Mortuary Science Program. In 2009, Tatro posted several comments on her Facebook page related to her experiences in an embalming lab. The posts were brought to the attention of the department director, and following an investigation by the University’s disciplinary body, Tatro’s course grade was changed to an F, she was required to enroll an a clinical ethics course, she was required to write a letter addressing the issue of respect, and was required to complete a psychiatric evaluation. Tatro fought the charges and sanctions citing that the discipline violated her First Amendment right to free speech. The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that the University did have the right to discipline Tatro for her comments which violated the Mortuary Science Program’s academic guideline rules which were narrowly tailored and directly related to established professional conduct standards[iii].
Connection to Ethical Codes
The presence of Ethical Codes such as the American Medical Association’s Code of Medical Ethics or the American Psychological Association’s (APA) similar version allows professional governing bodies the deference to address behaviors that might be inconsistent with the missions of their respective fields. Legal issues focus on the Due Rights afforded to individuals under various constraints. A primary difference between the law and ethical codes can be summarized as such: the law concerns itself with the act whereas ethical codes pertain more to the behaviors. This is an important distinction to understand because just because an action doesn’t occur, it does not mean the behavior didn’t occur and the ethics codes address the behavior. An example of this is if an underage college student excessively drinks at a party and then walks back to his residence hall and is observed by a Resident Advisor, because police may not be involved there wouldn’t be a legal citation, but there could still be a referral to Student Conduct because the behavior still occurred. The Conduct process addresses the behaviors that may be inconsistent with community values.
It is important to have these ethical codes because they expand the scope of accountability for professionals beyond where an individual may be legally able to do so but it is detrimental to either him/herself or the professional field more broadly. As it pertains the APA, the code states that in the process of making decisions regarding their professional behavior, psychologists must consider this Ethics Code in addition to applicable laws and psychology board regulations and if the Ethics Code establishes a higher standard of conduct than is required by law, psychologists must meet the higher ethical standard.[iv]
Ethics Codes are established to protect the larger profession and reinforce the idea that all individuals, especially when representing the profession, must act in a way that does both the individual and the field justice. When the individual places him or her needs ahead of the field and acts in a manner that could compromise the integrity of the profession for others, the association should have the grounds to address such behavior; ethics codes provide such grounding. As it pertains the Tatro case, Amanda’s decision to post disrespectful material to her social media page could have reasonably negatively affected future donors and families from committing their remains to the program for research and that could threaten the entire existence of the Mortuary Science Program. The law will always have limitations but ethics code extend the reach of professional associations to go where the law may not be able.