There are certain virtues we expect to find in our medical providers: a desire to help and heal, empathy, and compassion, among others. And yet, not every physician we encounter expresses these qualities.
Researchers from Duke University School of Medicine,Fuller Theological Seminary, and the Department of Medicine at the University of Chicago investigated the process by which medical students develop the moral intuition to care (Shepherd et al 2018). They studied 563 medical students across 24 US medical schools, analyzing the role of spirituality vs religiosity in virtue development.
The results show that the medical students’ spirituality predicted an intuition to care which predicted increases in empathic compassion and generosity. Interestingly, the importance of religion to the students did not predict the development of virtues. In fact, a negative relationship was found between religiousness and empathic compassion.
The fact that spirituality promotes virtues is not surprising when we consider that it connects people to something greater than themselves. By emphasizing connection to others, spirituality naturally cultivates such qualities as generosity and compassion. From this lens, medicine, ideally practiced in the service of helping others, represents a sacred goal or calling. The researchers suggest the ethical benefits of integrating spiritual growth awareness into medical education (as well as other contexts – military?), given that spirituality may affect students’ care of others.
Dr. Jim Withers of Pittsburgh, PA practices “street medicine.” He brings free medical care to the homeless and has developed Operation Safety Net, a set of essential health and social services offered through “house calls” to those living on the streets.
This model of outreach to the unsheltered homeless has now been replicated across six continents via the Street Medicine Institute.
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