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08/28/2013

How Future Doctors Think

How Future Doctors Think
Flanigan Lecture Explores How Medical Students Make Sense of Their World

 What kind of physician do you want? Do you want someone who, out of respect for your autonomy, explains treatment options but makes no recommendations, leaving the decision up to you? Or do you want something more?

If you want something more, the research conducted by Felicia Cohn, Ph.D., who presented the 19th Annual Rosemary Flanigan Lecture on July 30, 2013, underscores the importance of knowing how your doctor thinks and helping him or her to understand your story.

Patterns in Their Stories

When Dr. Cohn taught medical ethics at the University of California-Irvine School of Medicine, she noticed patterns in the stories medical students shared concerning conflicts they encountered between their personal values and professional obligations and what they did about them. Her colleague at UCI, Humanities Director Johanna Shapiro, wondered if there might be a way to analyze and identify themes from these stories as told in 299 papers Dr. Cohn had collected.

“The themes of the students’ narratives really did fall quite neatly into six categories,” said Dr. Cohn.

• Restitution (38%)  – Appealed to a moral norm or ethical principle.
• Compromise (16%) – Conceded core values.
• Journey (16%) – Grew through experience.
• Witnessing (13%) – Felt empathy but stood by and watched.
• Resistance (9%) – Rejected professional ethics in favor of personal views
• No Problem (2%) – Never experienced any conflict.

“I thought the papers would tell a lot more stories about witnessing and compromise, which were the type of stories that the students mostly shared in class,” said Dr. Cohn. “But it turned out that restitution – appeal to principle – was the most common story they told. And more often than not the principle the students appealed to was autonomy. In other words, it’s okay for me to do this because it’s what the patient said he wants.”

Autonomy or Guidance?

Dr. Cohn explained that this emphasis on autonomy in modern medical culture has important implications for both healthcare professionals and their patients.

“If physicians really think what a patient is doing is wrong but feel that respecting autonomy takes precedence, they’re going to be spending a lot of time doing things that they think are wrong. Then they’re miserable and we go and ask them to be nice to patients. I can’t help but think that’s where a lot of the dissatisfaction and even burnout from healthcare professionals comes from.”

Conversely, for the patient who wants more than options from their physician – who wants their physician to consider how their illness and treatment will integrate into their life and make honest recommendations based on that – then the doctor who tells a restitution story probably isn’t the doctor for them.

Learn more at http://www.PracticalBioethics.org

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