Do Medical Students' Narrative Representations of "The Good Doctor" Change Over Time? Comparing Humanism Essays From a National Contest in 1999 and 2013

Acad Med. 2017 Apr;92(4):537-543. doi: 10.1097/ACM.0000000000001531.


Purpose: To explore medical students' conceptions of "the good doctor" at two points in time separated by 14 years.

Method: The authors conducted qualitative analysis of narrative-based essays. Following a constant comparative method, an emergent relational coding scheme was developed which the authors used to characterize 110 essays submitted to the Arnold P. Gold Foundation Humanism in Medicine Essay Contest in 1999 (n = 50) and 2013 (n = 60) in response to the prompt, "Who is the good doctor?"

Results: The authors identified five relational themes as guiding the day-to-day work and lives of physicians: doctor-patient, doctor-self, doctor-learner, doctor-colleague, and doctor-system/society/profession. The authors noted a highly similar distribution of primary and secondary relational themes for essays from 1999 and 2013. The majority of the essays emphasized the centrality of the doctor-patient relationship. Student essays focused little on teamwork, systems innovation, or technology use-all important developments in contemporary medicine.

Conclusions: Medical students' narrative reflections are increasingly used as rich sources of information about the lived experience of medical education. The findings reported here suggest that medical students understand the "good doctor" as a relational being, with an enduring emphasis on the doctor-patient relationship. Medical education would benefit from including an emphasis on the relational aspects of medicine. Future research should focus on relational learning as a pedagogical approach that may support the formation of caring, effective physicians embedded in a complex array of relationships within clinical, community, and larger societal contexts.

MeSH terms

  • Attitude of Health Personnel
  • Humanism*
  • Humans
  • Narration*
  • Physician-Patient Relations
  • Physicians*
  • Population Growth
  • Qualitative Research
  • Students, Medical*