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Attitudes and Habits of Highly Humanistic Physicians

Chou, Carol M. MD; Kellom, Katherine; Shea, Judy A. PhD

doi: 10.1097/ACM.0000000000000405
Research Reports

Purpose Humanism is fundamental to excellent patient care and is therefore an essential concept for physicians to teach to learners. However, the factors that help attending physicians to maintain their own humanistic attitudes over time are not well understood. The authors attempted to identify attitudes and habits that highly humanistic physicians perceive allow them to sustain their humanistic approach to patient care.

Method In 2011, the authors polled internal medicine residents at the University of Pennsylvania to identify attending physicians who exemplified humanistic patient care. In this cross-sectional, qualitative study, the authors used a semistructured script to interview the identified attending physicians to determine attitudes and habits that they believed contribute to their sustenance of humanistic patient care.

Results Attitudes for sustaining humanism in this cohort of humanistic physicians included humility, curiosity, and a desire to live up to a standard of behavior. Many of the physicians deliberately worked at maintaining their humanistic attitudes. Habits that humanistic physicians engaged in to sustain their humanism included self-reflection, connecting with patients, teaching and role modeling, and achieving work–life balance. Physicians believed that treating their patients humanistically serves to prevent burnout in themselves.

Conclusions Identification of factors that highly humanistic attending physicians perceive help them to sustain a humanistic outlook over time may inform the design of programs to develop and sustain humanism in teaching faculty.

Dr. Chou is associate professor of clinical medicine, Division of General Medicine, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Ms. Kellom is senior research coordinator, Mixed Methods Research Lab, Department of Family Medicine and Community Health, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Dr. Shea is professor of medicine, associate dean for medical education research, director of evaluation and assessment, and interim chief, Division of General Medicine, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Funding/Support: Funding was provided by the Williams fellowship and the Sam Martin Education Pilot Research Award, both at the University of Pennsylvania.

Other disclosures: None reported.

Ethical approval: Ethical approval was obtained through the institutional review board at the University of Pennsylvania.

Previous presentations: Aspects of this work were previously presented at the 35th Annual Society of General Internal Medicine meeting, Orlando, Florida, May 2012; and the Annual American Academy on Communication in Health Care Research and Teaching Forum, Providence, Rhode Island, October 2012.

Correspondence should be addressed to Dr. Chou, 3701 Market St., Suite 741, Philadelphia, PA 19104; telephone: (215) 349-5200; fax: (215) 615-0038; e-mail:

© 2014 by the Association of American Medical Colleges