Introduction to Clinical Ethics

Clinical ethics is the field of bioethics that is concerned in particular with the interaction between caregiver and patient within the clinical setting. Codes of ethics and guides written for professionals provide general frameworks taking into account the legal aspects; however, there are countless interactions between physicians and patients, not all of which can be anticipated by written codes. Knowing and understanding the principles of clinical ethics is therefore essential for examining a clinical situation, identifying the moral conflicts or dilemmas involved, and justifying difficult decisions based on these principles.

Medicine and Humanities modules focus on philosophy, ethics, history, arts and literature as they relate to the practice of medicine. Prepared by specialists in medical and human sciences, these modules aim to provide a basis of support for knowledge and reflection so that students and health care professionals are able to develop their vision of disease and care from a bio-psycho-social perspective within a wider field of knowledge.

The author


Marc Zaffran practised medicine in France from 1983 to 2008, in a family medicine practice and a women’s health centre. He holds a Master’s degree from the Bioethics Programs of Université de Montréal. Under the pseudonym Martin Winckler, he is the author of numerous books on the health care profession: novels (La maladie de Sachs, Le Chœur des femmes, En souvenir d’André, Éditions P.O.L) and essays (Profession : Médecin de famille; Le patient et le médecin, Presses de l’Université de Montréal). He is also interested in the representation of ethical dilemmas in medical television series and has published numerous articles on the subject, and a recent book (Dr House, l’esprit du shaman, Les éditions du Boréal). In addition, he facilitates an annual writing workshop for medical students in the Physicianship program of McGill University.

Learning Objectives

By the end of this module, you will be able to:

  • State and define the basic principles of clinical ethics and related moral rules.
  • Identify ethical principles involved in everyday clinical situations.
  • Be aware of biases and conflicts of interest that can compromise ethical and clinical analysis.
  • Carry out a brief analysis of clinical dilemmas, identify the elements that must be taken into account and offer solutions based on respect for the principles.


Throughout the module, we invite you to PAUSE AND REFLECT in order to reinforce what you have learned. Take the time to write down your answers and ideas. An answer is given by the expert to help you deepen and ground your reflection. It is not meant to challenge the value of your personal answer but is there to offer new directions.
We also invite you to take personal notes using the “Note Taking” tool on the right.



Subject matter expert: Marc Zaffran, MD
Concept Development and Project Management: Isabelle Burnier, MD
Editorial Committee: Jean Roy, MD, Diane Bouchard-Lamothe, M. Sc.S.
Programming and Graphic Design: Medtech, University of Ottawa
Production: September 2015