Doctors Serving People: Restoring Humanism to Medicine through Student Community Service

Doctors Serving People: Restoring Humanism to Medicine through Student Community Service

Doctors Serving People: Restoring Humanism to Medicine through Student Community Service

Doctors Serving People: Restoring Humanism to Medicine through Student Community Service


Today's physicians are medical scientists, drilled in the basics of physiology, anatomy, genetics, and chemistry. They learn how to crunch data, interpret scans, and see the human form as a set of separate organs and systems in some stage of disease. Missing from their training is a holistic portrait of the patient as a person and as a member of a community. Yet a humanistic passion and desire to help people often are the attributes that compel a student toward a career in medicine. So what happens along the way to tarnish that idealism? Can a new approach to medical education make a difference?

Doctors Serving People is just such a prescriptive. While a professor at Rush Medical College in Chicago, Edward J. Eckenfels helped initiate and direct a student-driven program in which student doctors worked in the poor, urban communities during medical school, voluntarily and without academic credit. In addition to their core curriculum and clinical rotations, students served the social and health needs of diverse and disadvantaged populations. Now more than ten years old, the program serves as an example for other medical schools throughout the country. Its story provides a working model of how to reform medical education in America.


Early on in my position as Dean of Student Affairs at Dartmouth Medical School, I was asked to bring a group of our medical students to meet with Dr. Robert Coles over breakfast. Dr. Coles, the noted author and child psychiatrist, professor of medicine and humanities at Harvard, and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for his work in documenting the experiences of those children first involved in the integration of the schools in the South, was giving Dartmouth’s fall convocation speech that day. Dr. Coles and I lingered after the breakfast meeting with the students and talked about our dreams for and worry about medical education. We developed a friendship, a lasting bond, and he became my mentor. I, in turn, became convinced that his approach of participating in direct service to a community combined with using literature as a means of provoking reflection was a very useful strategy for education, especially the education of medical students. Dr. Coles’s important books The Call of Stories: Literature and the Moral Imagination (1990) and The Call of Service: a Witness to Idealism (1994), became my guidebooks and his approach of “doing as a part of learning” became my mantra.

Over the years, I witnessed how Dr. Coles’s stories could light a fire with students (and probably even more so with me). One story I’ll never forget was about his mentor, Erik Erikson. Once in a class at Harvard, Dr. Erikson asked his students if they had any questions for him. There was a silence, but finally, a young woman with a soft voice in the middle of the room asked him, “What do you think a Harvard education should mean when it’s all over?” Dr. Erikson smiled and said, “That’s a big question—an important one.” After a thoughtful pause, he answered, “I hope this is a place where we can all grow ethically— where we become kinder and more thoughtful towar prelude to the moral challenges of our everyday life.” Dr. Coles reflected that “we all need to struggle on behalf of a life in which daily deeds measure up to professed pieties.” This same type of question could be asked of medical education: what is its purpose? the glib answer might be to produce the types of doctors that society wants and needs, ones who can attend to our health and advocate for better health care. But is this what we’re producing? I think in large part the answer is no. How could this be so? If so, how can it be changed?

A common question being asked at present is what has become of the concept of professionalism in medicine, airing a concern that we have lost our . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.