Lazarus Likes the "Sticky" Side of Medicine

June 28, 2003

Mark Miester
Phone: (504) 865-5714

Cathy Lazarus never intended to be a physician or a teacher. "I truly fell into what I do," says the professor of clinical medicine at the School of Medicine. "I majored in biology, my grades and academic scores were good enough to get into medical school, I went, and I discovered that I loved teaching. I wasn't put off by the psychosocial and emotional sides. I really liked the sticky side of medicine."

inside0601_lazarusApparently, she isn't the only one with an appreciation for the sticky side of medical education. Lazarus, assistant dean for graduate medical education at the medical school, was named the recipient of this year's President's Award for Excellence in Graduate and Professional School Teaching.

Last year's recipient, Oliver Houck, professor of law, presented Lazarus with the award at this year's commencement ceremony. "Teaching is the best part of my job," Lazarus says. "It's the part that for me is creative and the one from which I derive the greatest satisfaction because it involves watching a professional and a person develop and grow. Figuring out how to bring out the best of every student is just a joy."

Lazarus earned her bachelors degree in cellular biology from the University of Michigan and her medical degree from Washington University. After completing her residency in internal medicine, she joined Washington University School of Medicine in 1984 as an instructor in clinical medicine.

In 1994 she joined the Tulane University School of Medicine as an assistant professor of clinical medicine. In 1998 she was promoted to associate professor and in 2002 to professor. In 1995, Lazarus was appointed director of the primary-care undergraduate curriculum.

Her interest in medical education led her and an interdisciplinary team of faculty to develop the Foundations in Medicine course, a two-year interdisciplinary program for first- and second-year medical students that emphasizes patient interaction, experiential learning, medical ethics, student leadership and service to the community.

"I call it the how to be a doctor course," Lazarus says. "It's the glue that holds it all together--personal communications and the ethical, psychological, emotional and cultural issues that are so much of what we do. You can't separate those out of treatment."

As part of the course, students visit sites in the community that fall outside traditional medical systems, such as rape crisis centers, hospices and substance-abuse treatment centers. It allows students to see what life in New Orleans is like and to get a much broader, complete and comprehensive picture of what its like to be one of the patients they might be delivering clinical care to as they get further along, says Lazarus, who adds that Tulane is one of the few schools in the country to require service on the part of its medical students.

What makes the service-learning component even more gratifying, Lazarus notes, is that studies have shown it's achieving its intended result. One of the really interesting things is that our students stand out in how they value service in a non-cynical way, she explains. The positive attitudes that they have about service and about the community really stand out when you compare them to students from other schools.

In addition to Foundations in Medicine, Lazarus has also worked with various collaborators to develop programs on professionalism, ethics, domestic violence and cultural issues in medicine. Medicine is not a black-and-white science, Lazarus says. "It's a human science and there is an awful lot of uncertainty in human science. Helping our students see that uncertainty and the need for emotional and mental flexibility is the key to longevity in a physician. It all comes together in my mind," Lazarus concludes. "It's trying to teach people how to be the best doctor they can be. That's what it's all about."

Mark Miester can be reached at

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