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Mere Healers: What Medical Training Is For & Why It Matters

The Columbia Center for Clinical Medical Ethics is pleased to announce the inaugural Lisio Family Lecture.

Speaker: Farr Curlin, M.D., Duke University 

For decades the field of medical education has been in ferment, seeking to go overcome its widely perceived tendency to train clinicians who are technically proficient but lack both a sufficiently comprehensive, holistic vision and the practices of being duly patient-centered. In response, medical educators have advanced a never-ending series of initiatives and curriculum changes, aiming for everything from patient-centered medicine to socially activist medicine to, most recently, character in medicine.

In this talk, Farr Curlin will argue that these movements, while laudable in many respects, both reflect and paradoxically contribute to the deeper problem to which they respond: the demoralization of medicine itself. For decades, medical educators have trained students to think of themselves not so much as practitioners pursuing the patient’s health, objectively considered, but instead as providers offering patients services that patients can use to pursue their own sense of well-being. In the shift from being healers to being providers of services, students learn to detach, morally, from their work, and such detachment leads to the patterns of behavior that prompt medical educators to initiate new programs of reform. To escape this cycle of de-moralization, medical educators must return to a more modest vision for medicine, in which medical education has succeeded if it trains mere healers—practitioners who reliably attend to those who are sick, in all of their human complexity, and skillfully and conscientiously seek to preserve and restore their health. That healing work is not everything, but it is good, and it is enough to motivate and inspire physicians throughout their careers. 

At Duke University, Dr. Curlin is the Josiah C. Trent Professor of Medical Humanities, Professor of Medicine, and Co-Director of the Theology, Medicine, and Culture Initiative.