Category Archives: Premed Education

My Father’s Empathy

My late father, William Stepansky, was the most empathic caregiver I have ever known.  Until recently, however, I never thought of him that way.  Indeed, I never had the sense that he “practiced” medicine one way or another, simply that he lived out his medical calling.  I thought nothing of having a father who taped the Hippocratic Oath to his dresser and read it every morning.

My father’s “empathy” did not grow out of medical training; it was the stuff of life experience. His family’s emigration from Russia followed the Hitler-like savagery of the Ukrainian Pogroms that followed World War I.  Anti-Semite thugs murdered his grandfather on his own doorstep several years before his father, Pincus, mother, Vittie (then pregnant with him), and older sister, Enta began their uncertain journey to America in 1921.  Pincus, a highly decorated Russian war veteran, a member of the 118th (Shuiskii) Infantry Regiment of the 30th Infantry Division, was the recipient of what my father termed the Russian equivalent of our own Congressional Medal of Honor.  “He was a sergeant,” he would tell me, “but a colonel had to salute him first.” On the battlefield he was wounded three times in the chest and once left for dead.  Stripped of his decorations by the bandits who raided his native village of Stavishche, he arrived in the new world penurious and crippled with chest pain.

My father, who was born in Kishinev, Rumania during the first leg of his family’s 1,900-mile journey across continental Europe, was six-months old when they arrived in Boston Harbor.  A year later, they left Boston and made their home in the densely Jewish enclave in South Philadelphia.  Throughout my life, my father shared two memories of his own father; they attest, respectively, to the positive and negative poles of the wounded soldier-tailor’s dedication to high culture. The first is of Pincus gamely limping across long city blocks with his young son in tow; he was taking his young son, my father, to his weekly violin lesson with his first teacher, the local postman.  Pincus never left the music room, and when the lesson was over, he took his son’s violin and lovingly wiped it down with a special cloth brought solely for that purpose.

The second memory is of Pincus imperiously ordering his son to bring his violin and perform whenever neighbors, friends, or relations gathered in the family’s small apartment.  A shy, retiring child, my father urgently wanted not to play. But his father’s directives were issued from on high with military-like peremptoriness that brooked neither contradiction nor delay.  And so my father got his violin and he played, perhaps through tears, perhaps through rage.

My father, at age 15, watched his father die of heart disease. In February, 1943, having completed his third-year of pharmacy training, he was called up by the army and served as a surgical technician in a medical battalion attached to the 80th Infantry Division of Patton’s Third Army.  In France, Belgium, and Germany, he worked alongside battlefield surgeons who fought to keep wounded GIs alive in a surgical clearing company only a short remove from the front line.  I learned a bit about the visceral reality of wound management in the European Theatre during his final years, when I interviewed him and several of his surviving comrades for The Last Family Doctor.  The prosaic summary of his duties in his army  discharge of January, 1946 – “Removed uncomplicated cases of shrapnel wounds, administered oxygen and plasma, sterilized instruments, bandages, clothing, etc.  Gave hypodermic injections and performed general first aid duties” – only hints at this reality.

My father, so I learned, held down wounded GIs for anesthesia-less suturing, assisted with frontline battlefield surgery, much of which involved amputation, and then, after the day’s work, went outside to bury severed arms and legs. He experienced close fighting in the woods of Bastogne during the freezing winter of 1945, when the techs worked 20-hour shifts to keep up with the inflow of casualties.  One can only wonder at the impact of such things on the constitution of a gentle and soft-spoken 22-year-old pharmacy student whose passion, before and after the war, was the violin, and who carried Tolstoy’s War and Peace in his backpack throughout his European tour.

A different man might have emerged from my father’s childhood and wartime experience emotionally constricted, withdrawn, intimidated by authority figures or, obversely (or concurrently) enraged by them.  In my father’s case, a lifelong performance anxiety – the legacy of a militaristic father repeatedly ordering him to play violin before visitors — was vastly counterbalanced by an enlarged empathic sensibility that enabled him to understand and contain his patients’ anxieties about their health, their relationships, their ability to love and to work.  Wrestling as he did with his own anxieties and memories of the war, which included the liberation of Dachau and Buchenwald, he became a physician who accepted utterly his patients’ prerogative to share their anxieties with him, even to project their anxieties into him.  He was, after all, their doctor.

My father was not only an astute diagnostician but also a gifted psychotherapist, and the amalgam of these twin talents was an ability to titrate his disclosures, to tell patients what they needed to know, certainly, but in a manner he thought they could bear.  His psychologically attuned approach to patient care is now associated with the paternalism of a different era.  But it was also an aspect of his ability, rare among physicians, to diagnose suffering and to discern the limits of this or that patient’s ability to cope with it.[1]  This style of practice was wonderfully appreciated by his patients, some of whom, after leaving the area, travelled a distance for yearly appointments with him.  No doubt they wanted to experience the “holding environment” of his person.

Premed students who grind away at biology and chemistry have no idea what my father and his cohort of war-tested physicians, many first- and second-generation immigrants, overcame for the privilege of studying medicine.  I would not wish his life story – of which I relate only a few particulars here – on any of them.  And yet, we might ponder the desirability of subjecting premed students to some muted version of his experience in order to nurture whatever elements of empathic temperament they possess.  Specifically, medical educators can take steps to ensure that premeds are not subverted by medicine’s  “hidden curriculum” – its institutional pull away from patient-centered values and practices – while they are still in college, especially when they complete their med school applications and present for their interviews.  And they can work harder to find clinical teachers who do not endorse shame, humiliation, and intimidation as credible educational strategies for acculturating young doctors into the profession.[2]

If we wish to steer contemporary medical students toward compassionate, or at least adequately sensitive, care-giving – and here I echo what others have said[3] – then we need to provide them with clinical teachers who are dissatisfied with a passive conception of role modeling and actually model discrete and specifiable behaviors in their interactions with patients.[4]  Sadly, the literature continues to provide examples of clinical training during medical school and residency that is denigrating, demoralizing, and ultimately desensitizing.  We end up with clinical teachers (not all, by any means, but no doubt a good many) who long ago capitulated to the hidden curriculum and devote themselves to readying the next generation of trainees for a like-minded (or better, a survival-minded) capitulation.  With this intergenerational dynamic in place, we are at the point of Marshall Marinker’s devastating “Myth, Paradox and the Hidden Curriculum” (1997), which begins:  “The ultimate indignity teachers inflict upon students is that, in time, they become us.”[5]

My father and his cohort of med students who trained during and shortly after WWII were resistant to shaming and intimidation.  They had experienced too much to be diverted from a calling to practice medicine.  But then their teachers too had experienced a great deal, many working alongside their future students – the pharmacists, medics, techs, and GIs – in casualty clearing stations, field hospitals, VA hospitals, and rehab facilities in Europe and America.  Teachers emerging from the war years encountered a generation of mature students whose wartime experience primed them to embrace medicine as patient care.  And the students, for their part, encountered teachers whose own wartime experience and nascent cold war anxieties tempered budding Napoleonic complexes.  High tech medicine, bioethics, and patient rights all lay in the future. Generalists like my father were trained to provide care that was caring; their ministrations were largely “medicinal, manual, and mentalistic, which is to say, psychological.”[6]  In the kind of training they received, the notion of  castigating as “unprofessional” med students whose patient-centered concerns and queries slowed down the breakneck pace of team rounds – a documented reality these days[7] – would literally have been non-sensical.

But that was then and this is now.  Today medical culture has in key respects become subversive of the ideals that drew my father and his cohort to medicine.  And this culture, which revolves around the sacrosanctity of an academic hierarchy that, inter alia, insists on perfection, denigrates uncertainty, privileges outcome over process, and, in the clinical years, engages students adversarially, is far too entrenched to be dislodged with manifestos, position papers, and curricular reforms.  What educators can do is seek out medical students whose empowerment derives less from high grades and artfully constructed admissions essays and more from life experience in the trenches – in any trenches. We don’t need to send premeds off to war to make them resistant to the hidden curriculum, but we should encourage premed experience robust enough to deflect its pull and let those of caring temperament develop into caring physicians.

Perhaps we need students who are drawn less to biochemistry than to the vagaries of human chemistry, students who have already undertaken experiential journeys that bring into focus the humanistic skyline of their medical horizons.  What Coulehan[8] terms “socially relevant service-oriented learning” should not be confined to residency training.  We need more students who come to medicine after doing volunteer work in developing nations; fighting for medical civil rights; staffing rural and urban health clinics; and serving public health internships.[9]  And if this suggestion is quixotic, let’s at least have premed students spend the summer before senior year in the trenches, as I proposed in “The Hunt for Caring Med Students.”  Such strategies will not create empathic caregivers de novo, but they will nurture the empathic temperament of those so endowed and, one hopes, fortify them a little better against the careerist blandishments of the hidden curriculum.  It would be nice if, a generation hence, other sons (and daughters) could write about their fathers’ (and mothers’) special kind of therapeutic empathy.


[1] E. J. Cassell, “Diagnosing suffering: a perspective,” Ann. Intern. Med., 131:531-534, 1999.

[2] J. White, et al., “’What do they want me To say?’: the hidden curriculum at work in the medical school selection process: a qualitative study,” BMC Med. Educ., 12:1-9, 2012; U. H. Lindström, et al., “Medical students’ experiences of shame in professional enculturation,” Med. Educ., 45:1016-1024, 2011; A. H. Brainard & H. C. Brislen, “Learning professionalism: a view from the trenches,” Acad. Med., 82:1010-1014, 2007; P. Haidet & H. F. Stein, “The role of the student-teacher relationship in the formation of physicians,” J. Gen. Intern. Med., 21:S16-20, 2006; Mary Seabrook, “Intimidation in medical education: students’ and teachers’ perspectives,” Stud. Higher Educ., 29:59-74, 2004.

[3] Haidet & Stein, “Role of the student-teacher relationship”; N. Ratanawongsa, et al., “Residents’ perceptions of professionalism in training and practice: barriers, promoters, and duty hour requirements,” J. Gen Intern. Med., 21:758-763, 2006; J. Coulehan, “Today’s professionalism: engaging the mind but not the heart,” Acad. Med., 80:892-898, 2005; B. Maheux, et al., “Medical faculty as humanistic physicians and teachers: the perceptions of students at innovative and traditional medical schools, Med. Educ., 34:630-634, 2000; J. H. Burack, et al., Teaching compassion and respect: attending physicians’ responses to problematic behaviors,” J. Gen. Intern. Med., 14:49-55, 1999.

[4] See further Burack, “Teaching compassion and respect,” p. 54.

[5] M. Marinker, “Myth, paradox and the hidden curriculum,” Med. Educ., 31:293-298, 1997, quoted at p. 293; cf. Haidet & Stein, “Role of student-teacher relationship,” p. 3: “The relational processes of the hidden curriculum assure the perpetuation of its content” (authors’ emphasis).

[6] P. E. Stepansky, The Last Family Doctor: Remembering My Father’s Medicine (Keynote, 2011), p. 114.

[7] Brainard & Brislen, “Learning professionalism,” p. 1011.

[8] Coulehan, “Today’s professionalism,” p. 896.

[9] For examples of such physicians and their role in the revitalization of primary care medicine in the 1970s, see Stepansky, Last Family Doctor, pp. 130-133.

Copyright © 2012 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.

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The Hunt For Caring Med Students

The MCATs, new and improved, will save us!  The overhauled medical school admissions test, which was approved by the American Association of Medical Colleges last February and will take effect in 2015, will devote almost half its questions to the social sciences and critical reasoning, with the latter including reading passages addressing cross-cultural issues and medical ethics.  According to Darrell G. Kirch, President of the AAMC, the new version of the test will aid medical schools in finding students “who you and I would want as our doctors.  Being good doctors isn’t just about understanding science, it’s about understanding people.”[1]

To which I reply:  Will wonders never cease?  We’re going to help medical schools make humanistic doctors with better people skills by making sure premed students are exposed to humanistic medicine as it filters through introductory psychology and sociology courses.  Had AACP personnel perused a sampling of introductory psychology and sociology syllabi, they might have paused before deciding to cultivate this new skill set through introductory social science courses, which, in this day and age, devote little time to theories of personality, family structure and dynamics, psychosocial development, and psychodynamics – the very topics that engaged me when I studied introductory psychology in the fall of 1969.  Still less do today’s introductory social science courses permit psychosocial and ethical consideration of health-related issues; for the latter, one seeks out upper-class courses in medical sociology, medical anthropology, and, of course, medical ethics.

If it’s a matter of choosing general nonscience courses that frame some of the ethical and cross-cultural (and racial and gender-related) issues tomorrow’s physicians will face, introductory philosophy courses in moral philosophy and/or ethics would be far more to the point.  But I am a historian and my own bias is clear:   At the top of horizon-broadening and humanizing courses would be surveys of nineteenth- and twentieth-century medicine in its cultural, political, and institutional aspects.  I offer two such seminars to upper-class history majors at my university under the titles “Medicine and Society: From Antebellum America to the Present”  and “Women, Their Bodies, Their Health, and Their Doctors: America, 1850 to the Present.”  Both seminars address doctor-patient relationships over the past two centuries, a topic at the heart of the social history of medicine.

But let’s face it.  Requiring premed students to take a few additional courses is a gesture – something more than an empty gesture but still a weak gesture.  There is every reason to believe that students who spend their undergraduate years stuffing their brains with biology, organic chemistry, and physics will  approach the social science component of premed studies in the same task-oriented way.  The nonscience courses will simply be another hurdle to overcome.  Premed students will take introductory psychology and sociology to learn what they need to know to do credibly well on the MCATs.  And, for most of them, that will be that.  Premed education will continue to be an intellectual variant of survivor TV:  making the grade(s), surviving the cut, and moving on to the next round of competition.

The overhaul of the MCAT is premised on the same fallacy that persuades medical educators they can “teach” empathy to medical students through dramatizations, workshops, and the like.  The fallacy is that physicianly caring, especially caring heightened by empathy, is a cognitive skill that can be instilled through one-time events or curricular innovations.  But empathy cannot be taught, not really.  It is an inborn sensibility associated with personality and temperament.   It is not an emotion (like rage, anger, joy) but an emotional aptitude that derives from the commensurability of one’s own feeling states with the feeling states of others.  The aptitude is two-fold:  It signifies (1) that one has lived a sufficiently rich emotional life to have a range of emotions available for identificatory purposes; and (2) that one is sufficiently disinhibited to access one’s own emotions, duly modulated, to feel what the patient or client is feeling in the here and now of the clinical encounter.  Empathy does not occur in a vacuum; it always falls back on the range, intensity, and retrievability of one’s own emotional experiences.  For this reason, Heinz Kohut, who believed empathy was foundational to the psychoanalytic method, characterized it as “vicarious introspection,” the extension of one’s own introspection (and associated feelings) to encompass the introspection (and associated feelings) of another.

Everyone possesses this ability to one small degree or another; extreme situations elicit empathy even in those who otherwise live self-absorbed, relationally parched lives.  This is why psychologists who present medical students with skits or film clips of the elderly in distressing situations find the students score higher on empathy scales administered immediately after viewing such dramatizations.  But the “improvement” is short-lived.[2]  An ongoing (read: characterological) predisposition to engage others in caring and comprehending ways cannot result from what one team of researchers breezily terms “empathy interventions.”[3]

If one seeks to mobilize a preexisting aptitude for empathic care giving, there are much better ways of doing it than adding introductory psychology and sociology courses to the premed curriculum.  Why not give premed students sustained contact with patients and their families in settings conducive to an emotional connection.  Let’s introduce them to messy and distressing “illness narratives” in a way that is more than didactic.  Let’s place them in situations in which these narratives intersect with their own lived experience.  To wit, let’s have all premed students spend the summer following  their junior year as premed volunteers in one of three settings:  pediatric cancer wards; recovery and rehab units in VA hospitals; and public geriatric facilities, especially the Alzheimer’s units of such facilities.

I recommend eight weeks of full-time work before the beginning of senior year. Routine volunteer duties would be supplemented by time set aside for communication – with doctors, nurses, and aids, but especially with patients and their families.  Students would be required to keep journals with daily entries that recorded their experience – especially how it affected (or didn’t affect) them personally and changed (or didn’t change) their vision of medicine and medical practice.  These journals, in turn, would be included with their senior-year applications to medical school.  Alternatively, the journals would be the basis for an essay on doctor-patient relationships informed by their summer field work.

I mean, if medical educators want to jumpstart the humane sensibility of young doctors-to-be, why not go the full nine yards and expose these scientifically minded young people to aspects of the human condition that will stretch them emotionally.  Emotional stretching will not make them empathic; indeed, it may engender the same defenses that medical students, especially in the third year, develop to ward off emotional flooding when they encounter seriously ill patients.[4]  But apart from the emotions spurred or warded off by daily exposure to children with cancer, veterans without limbs, and elderly people with dementias, the experience will have a psychoeducational yield:  It will provide incoming med students  with a broadened range of feeling states that will be available to them in the years ahead.  As such, their summer in the trenches will lay a foundation for clinical people skills far more durable that what they can glean from introductory psychology and sociology texts.

Those premed students of caring temperament will be pulled in an “empathic” direction; they will have an enlarged reservoir of life experiences to draw on when they try to connect with their patients during medical school and beyond.  Those budding scientists who are drawn to medicine in its research or data-centric “managerial” dimension[5] will at least have broadened awareness of the suffering humanity that others must tend to.  Rather than reaching for the grand prize (viz., a generation of empathic caregivers), the AAMC might lower its sights and help medical schools create physicians who, even in technologically driven specialties and subspecialties, evince a little more sensitivity.  In their case, this might simply mean understanding that many patients need doctors who are not like them.  A small victory is better than a Pyrrhic victory.


[1] Elisabeth Rosenthal, “Molding a New Med Student,” Education/Life Supplement, New York Times, April 15, 2012, pp. 20-22.

 [2] Lon J. Van Winkle, Nancy Fjortoft, & Mohammadreza Hojat, “Impact of a Workshop About Aging on the Empathy Scores of Pharmacy and Medical Students,” Amer. J. Pharmaceut. Ed., 76:1-5, 2012.

 [3] Sarah E. Wilson, Julie Prescott, & Gordon Becket, “Empathy Levels in First- and Third-Year Students in Health and Non-Health Disciplines,” Amer. J. Pharmaceut. Ed., 76:1-4, 2012.

 [4] Eric R. Marcus, “Empathy, Humanism, and the Professionalization Process of Medical Education,” Acad. Med., 74:1211-1215, 1999;  Mohammadreza Hojat, et al., “The Devil is in the Third Year: A Longitudinal Study of Erosion of Empathy in Medical School,” Acad. Med., 84:1182-1191, 2009.

 [5] Beverly Woodward, “Confidentiality, Consent and Autonomy in the Physician-Patient Relationship,” Health Care Analysis, 9:337-351, 2001.

Copyright © 2012 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.