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Edinburgh’s Online LLM in Medical Law and Ethics: Reflections

In honour of the Mason Institute’s 10th anniversary, we decided it would be a wonderful opportunity to reflect on our research-led teaching in health, medical law and ethics during this period.

Edinburgh Law School has been a longstanding and innovative leader in the delivery of an online Masters (LLM) in Medical Law and Ethics, which has led to it being consistently highly ranked in the Top 10 LLMs in Health/Medical Law in the UK and internationally.

This is in addition to publishing one of the UK’s leading textbooks in the area, Mason and McCall Smith’s Law and Medical Ethics. The textbook is now in its 12th edition and we recently celebrated 40 years since it was first published. You can see and hear all about the rich history of the textbook and its current edition in our commemorative video and podcast.

Student cohorts in the degree programme have included doctors, allied health professionals, lawyers, those working in health policy, administration and regulation, as well as individuals with a general interest in the field. We asked some of our recent graduates from the online LLM in Medical Law and Ethics to offer their reflections on the degree programme. We also asked Dr Gerard Porter, the Programme Director, for his own reflections on his role and the impact on students who have taken the degree over the years.

Gerard Porter – Programme Director, Online LLM in Medical Law and Ethics

The online LLM in Medical Law and Ethics degree programme started in 2008. We wanted to offer this degree because we believed there was demand in the wider world for accessible, high-quality teaching in medical law and ethics. Doctors and other healthcare professionals would likely be interested – we thought – as they are exposed to legal and ethical issues on a daily basis as part of their work but they may not have felt well-equipped to deal with these challenges. An on-campus LLM did not seem like a viable way to connect with this potential student demographic. We therefore decided to create an online LLM degree that would draw from our on-campus teaching and be tailored to suit the needs of students who may be approaching law and ethics for the first time. Its reception greatly exceeded our expectations and it is now the most popular online LLM degree programme at Edinburgh Law School.

One of the great strengths of the LLM is its flexibility. It is set up to allow students to balance Master’s level study with work and/or family commitments. Students can select the number of courses they wish to study each semester by taking the LLM over one, two or three years. Also, as online discussions are asynchronous, students can engage during teaching weeks at the time that suits them best. Live sessions are run on particular dates, but if students are unable to join they can easily catch up with video recordings. Furthermore, it is possible to engage with the course materials from anywhere in the world. All that is needed is a laptop and a good internet connection.

Our curriculum ensures that students have a solid foundation in the core medico-legal topics of interest in the health, medical law and ethics area, such as mental capacity, consent, confidentiality, clinical negligence and care at the start and end of life. Students can then broaden their learning into more specialist areas, such as the ethics of health technologies, public health ethics, regulation of health and social care professionals, and confidentiality and data protection in biomedicine. A lot of attention has gone into the way we approach teaching and learning. The foundational courses have a strong emphasis on skills development for both ethics and law. Students can familiarise themselves with the mechanics of both disciplines and quickly apply the relevant ‘tools’ to given problems. Furthermore, we are genuinely interested in hearing the wide range of views on the sometimes sensitive and controversial topics that we cover. Through class discussions and assessments, we encourage our students to develop and refine their own ideas and convey them to others in a respectful and persuasive way. This aligns with an overarching goal of the LLM, which is for our students to be rigorous, independent scholars who are able to put their knowledge and skills to good use in practice.

In terms of career opportunities, our graduates highlight professional development in terms of improved understanding and confidence in dealing with the legal and ethical dimensions of their work, allowing them to function more effectively. Healthcare professionals have also found the LLM useful for specific roles including advancing to managerial positions, participating as members of ethics committees, and acting as expert witnesses in legal proceedings. Other healthcare professionals have taken a keen interest in areas such as alternative dispute resolution in the clinical sphere and wish to participate and contribute in this area. Graduates working in the area of research governance in universities and private companies have also found the LLM valuable for navigating complex regulatory frameworks. Students who join us from legal backgrounds have included legal practitioners who have added health and medical law as a skill set in order to begin working in this field. Other students have opted for the academic route after graduation and (usually after completing a PhD) now teach and research at Universities in the area of health, medical law and ethics.

Speaking personally, it has been a great honour and privilege to teach on the online LLM in Medical Law and Ethics and to serve as its Programme Director. Each year, we are fortunate to welcome talented and enthusiastic students from all over the world. I have found the international aspect of our discussions fascinating, as students share their perspectives on topics in light of the situations in their own countries. I have also learned a great deal from our healthcare professional students and their insights based on their own professional experiences.

Edinburgh Law School’s Health, Medical Law and Ethics teaching team are all enthusiastic about the future of the online LLM in Medical Law and Ethics. Going forward, we aim to continually enhance the learning experience and maximise the degree programme’s potential.

Dr Valentina Mauro – Online LLM in Medical Law and Ethics (2020-2022)

I am a consultant gynaecologist, a specialist in reproductive medicine. Recent advances in this field together with societal changes have brought many ethical dilemmas to my practice as well as the necessity to ensure that new technologies comply with regulations and laws.

The prestigious institution of the University of Edinburgh, with its flexible part-time online Masters programme, allowed me to achieve adequate learning and keep my job. The virtual classroom works well for debate and, although I was only able to join the class towards the end of the week after other students’ opinions had already been posted, I always had a reply from the tutors who kept me on the right track.

My dissertation topic was quite challenging; even one of my friends who is a barrister (KC) wished me sarcastically ‘good luck with it!’. Nevertheless, my supervisor offered me fantastic guidance in compatibility with the time permitted for our meetings. My English writing skills have improved so dramatically that I was offered a writing position for a medical journal; this came as a welcome surprise for me as, given my Italian background, I never thought this skill would be my forte!

As a result of my work on the LLM, I grew as a person and a doctor. I have been promoted to Clinical Lead in my organisation, and in my new role, I manage complaint resolutions and the Ethics Team. The LLM has equipped me with debating skills that I have implemented when resolving disputes, which have resulted in improved patient satisfaction. I would highly recommend the online LLM in Medical Law and Ethics programme at the University of Edinburgh. Do not hesitate to join. Good Luck!

Dr Francis Chan – Online LLM in Medical Law and Ethics (2020-2022) 

I have always been interested in aspects of arts and humanities even though I was trained as a medical doctor. Apart from my practice in clinical medicine, I have always wanted to know more about how our perceptions about health influence medical practice, and how laws and regulations can enhance patient safety on a wider scale. Therefore, I decided to enrol in the online LLM programme in Medical Law and Ethics alongside my full-time work.

Flexibility is the main reason why I chose studying with the University of Edinburgh. Its unique mode of study and the ease with course selection allowed me to study at my own pace, as I juggled my parental responsibilities and clinical duties. Studying online is not necessarily a less optimal option compared with campus-based learning. The virtual learning platform of the University enabled me to access high quality study materials anytime and anywhere. The online discussion boards were always active and filled with insightful exchanges amongst students and professors. Students from my class came from diverse professional and academic backgrounds. I met people from all around the world and I learned a lot more about medical practices and regulations in different countries.

The dissertation stage is one of the most rewarding experiences of the programme. My thesis explored how the criminal law addresses system failings arising from medical negligence resulting in the death of a patient. Through the dissertation process, I acquired valuable researching and writing skills with the excellent guidance from my tutor. I believe these skills will be very useful for me as I pursue further academic research in medical law.

Dr Frans Skosana – Online LLM in Medical Law and Ethics (2020-2022) 

My decision to study the LLM in Medical Law and Ethics was sparked by an increase in cases of medical negligence in South Africa and many other parts of the world. As a pulmonary and critical care specialist, I was at the forefront of managing Covid-19 patients. Covid-19 raised a vast array of bioethical issues: from human rights, allocation of scarce resources, and access to therapies and vaccines in the Global North and South, amongst others. We debated these issues in class, and I had an opportunity to face them in real life.

I chose the University of Edinburgh due to the scope of the LLM course, and international relevance. Edinburgh Law School is ranked highly globally and draws its students from different jurisdictions and broad areas of specialty. I thought it was best to learn from colleagues and lecturers from diverse backgrounds. My timing coincided with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Managing my part-time studies, and at the same time remaining devoted to clinical medicine and my family proved to be a difficult task, but I managed to balance these spheres of my life.

During my studies, I was introduced to a course on alternative dispute resolution, which was the focus of my dissertation. My supervisor allowed me to write about the applications of alternative dispute resolution in medical negligence, which, in my view, lies at the core of resolving the challenges to address medical negligence in South Africa. The topic brought the concepts back to my own country and yet remained globally relevant.


Photo by Trent Erwin on Unsplash

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