Message from the Director

Thomas Cole, Ph.D.

Dr. Thomas Cole, Center Director

Year after year, I am inspired by our students. Each August, they arrive with the same goals and desires, the same fears and needs. As they enter the halls of biomedicine, students often wonder what will become of their humanity. They are hungry for knowledge and expertise, but no less hungry for guidance and nurture. They want to learn to be healers, to connect with their patients. They are looking for models, for support, for information and insight that will sustain their capacity to give, to handle ethical problems, and to remain compassionate in the face of turmoil, stress, and anger. They are innocent and eager, and soon run into the hard truths of too much to learn, too few hours, too many tests, too many patients, too many conflicting perspectives.

The McGovern Center feeds the hearts and minds of these students. We help them engage aspects of medicine and science where technical mastery is impossible, ethical problems are difficult, and existential meaning is hard to come by. Each year, 230 medical students take our required six-week "Ethics and Professionalism" course. All students in The University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Science at Houston (part of UTHealth) must take our semester-long "Ethics of Scientific Research" course. In 2009–2010, more than 500 medical students took elective courses, including the History of Medicine, Healthcare Policy, Healthcare for the Homeless, the Healer's Art, Suffering, and Introduction to Medical Humanities. Over 60 students and faculty attend each of our Clinical Ethics Grand Rounds and our outside Speaker Series.

Nearly 100 students are enrolled in our unique four-year Medical Humanities Certificate Program, the largest of its kind in the country. That program provides courses, research experience, volunteer opportunities, dinner seminars, outside speakers, and a community which supports the professional formation of each individual. Students graduate with a Medical Humanities Certificate and with an integrity that comes from being who they really are.

As part of our work in spirituality and health care, the Center sponsors the Sacred Vocation Program—an experiential workshop series which links personal growth and organizational change. Young physicians come to understand their power to heal as well as to harm and to see how their work gives meaning to their lives. Sacred Vocation is now required for all physicians entering the Internal Medicine Residency Program.

As of 2010, the McGovern Center has embarked on a "Campus-Wide Ethics Program" designed to coordinate ethics education across all six schools that comprise UTHealth. Students and faculty in dentistry, nursing, public health, biomedical sciences, medicine, and health informatics will be developing their knowledge and skills in ethics—internalizing the core professional values of their disciplines, identifying ethical conflicts, and learning how to resolve them. We are helping move from an emphasis on compliance to one of ethical culture. This means opening a dialogue about our highest aspirations, rather than a list of the minimal expectations. Such dialogue requires nurturing the humanity of students and faculty, and helping them sustain and enhance themselves so that they have a self to give. It means providing the tools to resolve ethical problems which arise in practice: to address patients with sensitivity to their life stories, their cultural, religious, and ethnic backgrounds.

What we have learned from our experience that will guide us in the next five years? We have learned, above all, that students want and need what the McGovern Center offers. We have learned that it is difficult to maintain our momentum in the midst of fiscal constraints. And we have learned that excellence leads the way to success. In the next five years, we plan to expand our certificate program beyond the Medical School and to explore a Masters Degree Program in Medical Humanities and Bioethics. We hope to expand the Sacred Vocation Program to include more residency programs at UT Medical School at Houston and at other medical schools.

We will continue conducting significant research, including educational research that allows us to share our model Medical Humanities Certificate, Sacred Vocation, and Campus-Wide Ethics programs with colleagues around the country.

Thomas R. Cole, Ph.D.

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