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Answering the 'Ethical Dilemma' Interview Question

Many medical school candidates worry about the questions that they may face during the interview process. Although there is an array of questions to consider, there is one particular question that has many applicants especially concerned: the ethical dilemma question. We asked Senior Consultant Dr. Gregory Goldmacher to shed some light on why interviewers ask this question and to share a few insightful tips on how to address this topic.

"I've spoken to a number of applicants this fall who were concerned about encountering 'hard' medical ethics questions in their interviews. What if the interviewer asks you for your position on physician-assisted suicide, for example, and you tell them you are for it, and it turns out that they are passionately against it?

"First of all, please realize that the likelihood of your encountering such questions is small. Interviewers are far more interested in your ability to interact and develop rapport, and few will ask questions like this.

"Second, you must recognize that the key to answering these questions well is not to give the answer that the interviewer agrees with, but to show an understanding of what makes the question a tough one in the first place.

"It's OK to ask the interviewer for a few moments to think. Then, don't start off by stating your own position. First, explain the basis of the dilemma, then you can add your own feelings on the matter. In the case of physician-assisted suicide, for example, an excellent answer would be something like this:

"'That's a very difficult question. What makes it difficult is that it requires a decision about what the most important role of a physician is. If a doctor's main role is to prolong and support life, then assisting in a suicide is clearly wrong. If a doctor's main role is to alleviate suffering, then helping an incurable and horribly suffering patient to end their own life is consistent with this role. My personal feeling is that...' And here you can explain which of these interpretations of the physician's role you prefer.

"No matter which position the interviewer favors, you've just shown yourself to have mature insight on a difficult ethical issue."

Dr. Gregory Goldmacher has a MD and PhD from University of Texas Southwestern in Dallas. He is currently doing neuroradiology research at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

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