Vanquishing Virtue: The Impact of Medical Education

Jack Coulehan, Peter Williams
Submitted: June, 2001

North American medical education favors an explicit commitment to traditional values of doctoring-empathy, compassion, and altruism among them-and a tacit commitment to behaviors grounded in an ethic of detachment, self-interest, and objectivity. The authors further note that medical students and young physicians respond to this conflict in various ways. Some re-conceptualize themselves primarily as technicians and narrow their professional identities to an ethic of competence, thus adopting the tacit values and discarding the explicit professionalism. Others develop non-reflective professionalism, an implicit avowal that they best care for their patients by treating them as objects of technical services (medical care). Another group appears to be “immunized” against the tacit values, and thus they internalize and develop professional virtue. Certain personal characteristics of the student and medical school features such as family medicine, communication skills courses, medical ethics, humanities, and social issues in medicine play roles in “immunization”. To be effective, though, these features must be prominent and tightly integrated into the medical school curriculum. The locus of change in the culture of medicine has now shifted to ambulatory settings and the marketplace. It remains to be seen whether this move will lessen the disj