Student Ethics Chancellor Leads Update of Honor Code

The first time fourth-year medical student Joshua Sasine read the Miller School’s Code of Honorable and Professional Conduct as a freshman he got “tripped up” by the sections on how alleged infractions would be investigated. He and fellow students thought they were riddled with legalese.

But back then, Sasine didn’t think the lack of clarity was a big deal. “I figured the chances I’d be involved with an investigation were low, so I didn’t think it was relevant,’’ he recalls.

Today, as chancellor of the Council for Honorable and Professional Conduct, Sasine is steeped in the code’s importance. Responsible for introducing and explaining the code to new students, he also chairs the investigating committee that determines whether suspected ethics violations warrant a preliminary hearing and possible action by the council.

As such, he is intimately familiar with the code and, at the request of Robert Hernandez, M.D., senior associate dean for medical student administration, is leading the effort to revise it, an arduous task the council plans to complete before Sasine’s graduation in May.

“We plan to make it more student-friendly and more readable, and also change the role of the student ethics council,’’ said Sasine, who was nominated chancellor by last year’s council and confirmed by a majority vote of the Student Council. “It’s a big project, but it’ll have a lasting impact.’’

Found at the end of the student handbook, the 10-page code also needs to be updated to reflect the rapidly evolving information age, Sasine said. After all, the original code approved by a majority vote of the Student Council in July 2001 didn’t contemplate the advent of Facebook four years later.

“When does your Facebook account become an object of scrutiny by the University because of things posted?’’ asked Sasine, who hopes to make medical ethics a central focus of a career in hematology and oncology. “When should your personal life online become subject to what is expected of you in your professional life? These are among the questions we need to explore.’’

While the planned revisions will preserve the principles of medical professionalism – respect, honor, integrity, honesty, and selfless service – Sasine said the council intends to make the role of students in honor investigations more educational, and less investigatory.

“Our new focus will be less reactionary,’’ Sasine said. “We may act as councilors to students involved in minor ethical or professional infractions in hopes of preventing major ones.’’

A snowboarder, skydiver and kitesurfer who grew up in Colorado, Sasine was drawn to medicine in high school when he helped his mother through her successful battle against breast cancer. Then, while earning his undergraduate degree in molecular biology at the University of Northern Colorado, he took his first ethics courses and discovered a new interest.

But it wasn’t until he gained clinical experience as a medical student that he realized the importance of professionalism, and decided to pursue a leadership role in ethics that he hopes to continue in the future.

“I saw some things I didn’t think were right – mostly to do with communication with patients,’’ Sasine said. “Breaking bad news can be tough, but even if someone comes in with something benign, you want to make sure they feel cared about and have a good experience.’’

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