Background: Studies have shown that medical students have high rates of burnout accompanied by a loss of empathy as they progress through their training. This article describes a course for medical students at The University of Queensland-Ochsner Clinical School in New Orleans, LA, that focuses on the development of virtues and character strengths necessary in the practice of medicine. Staff of the Ochsner Clinical School and of the Institute of Medicine, Education, and Spirituality at Ochsner, a research and consulting group of Ochsner Health System, developed the course. It is a curricular innovation designed to explicitly teach virtues and their associated prosocial behaviors as a means of promoting professional formation among medical students. Virtues are core to the development of prosocial behaviors that are essential for appropriate professional formation.
Methods: Fourth-year medical students receive instruction in the virtues as part of the required Medicine in Society (MIS) course. The virtues instruction consists of five 3-hour sessions during orientation week of the MIS course and a wrapup session at the end of the 8-week rotation. Six virtues-courage, wisdom, temperance, humanity, transcendence, and justice-are taught in a clinical context, using personal narratives, experiential exercises, contemplative practices, and reflective practices.
Results: As of July 2015, 30 medical students had completed and evaluated the virtues course. Ninety-seven percent of students felt the course was well structured. After completing the course, 100% of students felt they understood and could explain the character strengths that improve physician engagement and patient care, 100% of students reported understanding the importance of virtues in the practice of medicine, and 83% felt the course provided a guide to help them deal with the complexities of medical practice. Ninety-three percent of students stated they would use the character strengths for their own well-being, and 90% said they would change their approach to the practice of medicine as a result of this course. Overall, 92% of students rated the course as outstanding or good.
Conclusion: We developed a course to teach virtues and their associated prosocial behaviors that are important for the practice of medicine. After completing the course, students self-reported improved understanding of the virtues and their importance to the practice of medicine. We plan further studies to determine if participation in the course leads to less burnout and improved resilience.
Keywords: Burnout–professional; character; education–medical–undergraduate; empathy; ethics–clinical; faculty–medical; schools–medical; social values; students–medical; virtues.