Fostering the Human Touch

March 1, 1999

Judith Zwolak

I was a freak among my friends," admits Tom Kim. During his third year of medical school at Tulane-- the year when students see patients in "rotations" through different disciplines--Kim confessed to crying at every birth he observed while on his rotation in the obstetrics ward.

"It was extraordinary to witness the miracle of life," says Kim (M '98), now an intern in medicine-psychiatry at Tulane University Medical Center. "I would cry during every birth and then I would look at the 13-year-old mother and cry for a different reason. Then I would look up at the grandmother who was crying because her baby was having a baby. "There is a whole lot of stuff going on there that just doesn't get addressed in medical school."

Before graduating last year, Kim helped develop a program to address aspects of medical care that fall outside the medical science curriculum. With a $200,000 grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, the medical center formed the Program for Professional Values and Ethics in Medical Education, which will kick off this summer with a retreat for incoming first-year students.

Paul Rodenhauser, professor of psychiatry and neurology and assistant dean for academic and counseling services, was one of the primary developers of the program and a member of the program's executive committee. He says the program focuses on the relationship between the physician and the patient.

"I believe strongly that every school of medicine can do a better job of emphasizing the primacy of the physician-patient relationship," Rodenhauser says. "In this era of technology, all we hear about is the technical aspects of medicine and how poorly patients are treated interpersonally."

To help students explore the humane aspects of medicine, the program centers on five themes students will address in learning teams throughout their four years of medical school--integrity, communication, service, leadership and teamwork.

These teams, composed of 60 students from all four years of medical school and three faculty members, develop their own ways of discussing and examining issues related to values and ethics, says program committee member Cathy Lazarus, associate professor of medicine and director of the Foundations in Medicine program.

"Students can come to their teams and talk about their own experiences," Lazarus says. "For example, relating to the theme of integrity, if they've witnessed something that doesn't fit in with their definition, they can come here and talk about it. They can also come and share positive experiences."

Interaction with team members should also extend outside of structured meetings. "We're trying to create a network for informal mentoring, which is very important, but difficult to achieve," Lazarus says.

One place to form relationships is at the pre-first-year retreat, which is modeled on a program at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Program committee member Robin Whitlock, associate professor of medicine and director of the Episcopal Ministry to Medical Education, taught at Maryland before coming to Tulane in 1995.

Tulane's inaugural retreat will take place Aug. 9/11 at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux. In the balmy environs of bayou country, first-year students, upperclassmen and faculty members will have a chance to interact in a relaxing atmosphere, Whitlock says.

"It's a chance for us to address students' anxieties and to give them a smooth entry into medical school," he says.

At the retreat, students and faculty members will meet in small groups to discuss their motivations for pursuing a degree in medicine and their preconceived notions of medical school. Another goal is to develop a mission statement for the class. Perhaps the biggest draw, however, are the recreational activities planned, which include a swamp tour and Cajun dancing lessons.

"It's going to be a lot of fun," says Whitlock, who notes that retreat attendance is voluntary and will cost a nominal fee. "Those who don't come are really going to be missing something."

Evaluating the success of the program is the job of committee member Sheila Chauvin, assistant professor of psychiatry and neurology and director of the Office of Educational Research and Services, who will compare the skills, attitudes and behaviors of students in the program with data already collected from former Tulane students.

Rodenhauser says he hopes the program will help medical students get through their grueling courses and clinical activities without losing sight of their jobs as caring professionals. "One of the motivations I had for the program was to get the medical students through four years of medical school with the same enthusiasm they had when they started," he says.

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000