When considering the teaching and learning of topics of social relevance in medicine, such as professionalism, medical ethics, the doctor–patient relationship, and issues of diversity and social justice, one is tempted to ask, are the ways of knowing in these fields different from that in the biomedical and clinical sciences? Furthermore, given that the competency approach is dominant in medical education, one might also ask, is the competency model truly appropriate for all of the types of knowledge necessary to become a good physician? These questions are not merely academic, for they are at the core of how these subjects are taught, learned, and assessed.
The goal of this article is threefold: first, to explore the nature of knowing and the educational goals in different areas of medicine and, in particular, those areas that have social relevance; second, to critically review the concept of competencies when applied to education in these areas; and third, to explore alternative strategies for teaching, learning, and assessment. This discussion reflects a view that the goal of education in areas of social relevance in medicine should be the enhancement of an understanding of—a deep and abiding connection with—the social responsibilities of the physician. Moving beyond competencies, this approach aspires toward the development of practical wisdom (phronesis) which, when embodied in the physician, links the knowledge and skills of the biomedical and clinical sciences with a moral orientation and call to action that addresses human interests in the practice of medicine.