Purpose Medical students receive a varying amount of training in medical ethics and are expected to navigate clinical ethical dilemmas innately. There is little literature on attempts to navigate ethical dilemmas experienced during early clinical experiences and whether current curricula prepare students for these dilemmas. This study explores the different ethical dilemmas experienced by medical students on their third-year clerkships and analyzes the factors, sources, and resolutions proposed by them. Methods From 2016 to 2018, third-year medical students completed a written assignment to describe, analyze, and reflect on a clinical situation in which they experienced an ethical dilemma. They identified specific ethical dilemmas present, potential preventative and aftermath solutions, and reflected on their professional development from their experience. The research team utilized applied thematic analysis to identify themes and patterns in the data. A thematic matrix was utilized to examine similarities and differences across medical students. Results Of the 162 reflections, 144 (88.9%) students indicated an ethical dilemma that included issues related to autonomy and beneficence. Of these, 116 (71.6%) students found the two ethical principles in direct conflict. Students identified three common sources of this conflict: lack of communication; unclear understanding of clinical policies regarding family authority and psychiatric capacity; and medical negligence. Lastly, students suggested different solutions for dealing with and preventing this conflict. Conclusion Our findings suggest that an overwhelming number of students face ethical challenges when confronted with medical situations that raise conflicts between autonomy and beneficence. Their recommended solutions reveal an appeal among students to have tools and strategies in place to ease the need to make difficult decisions. Medical students might be better served by learning about the complexities of ethical decision-making and the likelihood of experiencing moral distress when they feel an inability to implement what they envision as the best solution.

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