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  • BIOETHICS FORUM ESSAY

Harvard (Re)discovers Patients’ Narratives

The Boston Globe recently reported that Harvard Medical School is reconfiguring its curriculum in an effort to train physicians to understand the experience of illness, and the bewildering complexities of the health care system, from the patient’s perspective. There’s an intriguing historical footnote to this news. Much of what Harvard and its hospitals are now implementing – placing students in clinical situations where they will be intensely involved with the whole person, not merely with that person’s disease, and closely supervising students to provide feedback on their interactions with patients and families – is at the heart of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), the clinical training completed by many theological students and clergy in preparing for working as professional chaplains or for other ministry to patients and families. The CPE movement began in 1925, at . . . Harvard Medical School, when Richard C. Cabot, a professor of medicine and philosophy and the author of Adventures on the Borderland of Ethics (1926) called for a “clinical year for theological students,” similar to medical students’ third year. The most influential early CPE center was Massachusetts General Hospital, where Harvard’s “new” medical-education curriculum is now being rolled out. Perhaps Professor Cabot would describe this innovation as “a theological year for medical students”?

Readers respond

As a double major working toward a masters of pastoral ministry and a doctorate in health care ethics, I found the clinical internships required by both programs invaluable. I have recently graduated with a Doctor of Health Care Ethics degree where I completed four clinical internships at area hospitals. I have also completed one of two required CPE’s for my ministry degree. That experience was one of the most profound. I engaged in the CPE over the summer of 2005. By that time I was nearing the end of my doctoral study, so I entered the clinical pastoral education experience with a considerable amount of clinical time under my belt. I was faced with situations where I had to adjust my focus and purpose for engaging the patient, family, or staff member. I found it to be an enlightening and rewarding experience. I have received letters of appreciation and inspiration from patients or family members with whom I spent precious time. During my summer internship I was faced with two particular situations where I had to make use of both my pastoral and ethics training to help the patient and family navigate difficult situations. The experience only strengthened my resolve that all of us who have chosen a health care profession of any sort must seek out educational and training experiences that will equip us all to address the “patient as person” by considering the physical, psychological, social, and spiritual needs of that particular patient, family, or co-worker.

– Jessica A. Moore

Published on: March 24, 2006
Published in: Health and Health Care

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