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Emory program that teaches compassion to doctors now taught in 30 U.S. and Canadian medical schools

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Janet Christenbury

According to William Branch, Jr., MD, teaching humanism and role modeling can result in a higher level of communication between doctor and patient.

An Emory-cultivated program focused on teaching doctors and medical students to be more humanistic and compassionate at the bedside has now become part of the curriculum at 30 U.S. and Canadian medical schools. The program has been taught to designated faculty members at each medical school, and continues at most today. The faculty at those schools teach the importance of humanism to the younger generation of doctors.

A report on this multi-institutional faculty development program can be found in the online publication of Academic Medicine, published by the Association of American Medical Colleges. The print version of the report will appear in the December issue.

In 1995, William T. Branch, Jr., MD, the Carter Smith, Sr. Professor of Medicine, came to Emory from Harvard, to be the director of the General Internal Medicine Division. Shortly thereafter, he established a primary care residency and a faculty development program.

To better teach budding primary care physicians the importance of compassion, Branch felt it was necessary to teach the human side of medicine. According to Branch, humanism and role modeling can result in a higher level of communication between doctor and patient. He worked with a group of Emory faculty members to develop the curriculum, then began collaborating with several other medical schools.

After teaching the humanism program in collaboration with faculty at five medical schools, including Emory, then having that information taught to medical students and residents, a study of faculty members who completed the one-year program showed positive results. A grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations helped support the study. Branch then collaborated with and taught selected faculty at eight more medical schools, and a second study showed the same encouraging results.

"After receiving additional grants from the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation and the Arnold P. Gold Foundation to support our work, and having continued interest from medical schools across the U.S., our one-year faculty development program has now been taught in 30 medical schools in the U.S. and Canada," says Branch. "More than 900 faculty have completed the program to date, with tens of thousands of medical students and residents benefitting from their teachings. The program is intended to help medical school faculty be better role models to young physicians and students."

Branch says the program is designed for reflective and experiential learning. By selecting promising teachers at each medical school, local talent can learn to teach the message to others, without spending large sums of money.

"These experienced medical school faculty members can shift the learning climate to make it more positive for students and compassionate for patients," says Branch. "Young doctors and students need to learn how to treat their patients like people with needs and concerns, and not just as a diseased organ or medical statistic."

The collaborators of this program also believe teaching humanism and compassion to strengthen the doctor-patient relationship can help in reducing burnout among the medical community.

"Faculty teachers involved in this humanistic teaching program show a tremendous sense of engagement and pride," Branch explains. "Having the feeling that your work is very meaningful and helping others, reduces burnout. The faculty can inject this notion into new learners."

Branch says the multi-institutional group plans to study burnout in relation to this program soon.

"I think this program has shown us it is possible to help faculty members reach their full potential in teaching compassion to younger trainees, says Branch. "By providing the necessary resources to assist faculty members, our future cadre of physicians and their patients will all benefit from this curriculum."

Medical schools participating in the faculty development program to develop humanistic teachers and role models include: Emory University; Baylor University; Rochester University; Indiana University; Hofstra/Northwell University; University of Minnesota; University of California San Francisco; University of California San Diego; University of California Davis; University of Massachusetts; Harvard Medical School; St. Francis Medical Center; University of California Los Angeles; Augusta University-Medical College of Georgia; Stanford University; Yale University; Medical University of South Carolina; University of North Carolina Chapel Hill; Vanderbilt University; University of Virginia; Medical College of Wisconsin; Pennsylvania State University; University of Colorado; George Washington University; University of Vermont; University of Alberta; University of Calgary; Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia; and University of Toronto.

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