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Letters to the Editor

What Is the Value of an Honor Society?

Rosenthal, Susan, MD; Schlussel, Yvette R., PhD; Wagoner, Norma, PhD

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doi: 10.1097/ACM.0b013e31822d7c67
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In Reply:

Ms. Ramer's argument centers on the value of an honor society—maybe of any kind. The literature is replete with both pros and cons of honor societies that bring recognition to some and not to others. It was not our intent to engage in that debate but simply to bring our data to the attention of others. Ms. Ramer misses the point that societies like the Gold Humanism Honor Society (GHHS) recognize outstanding contributions to community service, which fosters important attributes such as altruism among physicians-in-training1 and sustains and nurtures humanism in the communities in which chapters exist and members practice. By recognizing and rewarding desirable but difficult-to-teach traits in settings where efficiency is emphasized, we hope to inspire all students—not just GHHS awardees—to adopt humanistic values.

Our study focused on preserving empathy through educational intervention, which we believe was successfully demonstrated. The Humanism and Professionalism (H&P) program in our third-year curriculum was partly built on our long-standing involvement with humanism programs of the Arnold P. Gold Foundation, including the GHHS. Given our knowledge of the impact of these programs on our students, our hypothesis was that the H&P program would make a difference in helping our students preserve their empathy.

Membership in the GHHS does not indicate that some students are humanistic and others not. Instead, attributes, including humanism, tend to be present along a continuum. As a corollary to the GHHS, for over 100 years, students have been accorded recognition for excellence in academics through membership in the Alpha Omega Alpha Medical Honor Society. Until the GHHS was formed in 2002, no national recognition for excellence in humanistic traits existed. We believe that GHHS selection allows students to honor colleagues who exemplify these traits. (Research on a peer nomination tool affirms that students can identify medical student exemplars in clinical competence, caring, and community service among their colleagues.2) Furthermore, the GHHS exists to enlist these exemplars as lifelong role models and advocates for patient-centered care.

As part of our assessment of the H&P program, we decided to see if there was any difference between those students chosen for the GHHS and the students who were not, and we were surprised to find that it did matter. It was not an assumption that we made going into the assessment. Clearly, recognition for excellence in any area brings confidence to those accorded the honor and, we hope, inspiration to those around them.

Susan Rosenthal, MD

Corporate director, medical education, Meridian Health, Neptune, New Jersey.

Yvette R. Schlussel, PhD

Research scientist, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey; [email protected].

Norma Wagoner, PhD

Senior instructor, University of Colorado School of Medicine, and director emerita, Gold Humanism Honor Society.


1 Blue AV, Geesey ME, Sheridan MEB, Basco WT Jr. Performance outcomes associated with medical school community service. Acad Med. 2006;81(10 suppl):S79–S82. Accessed June 24, 2011.
2 McCormack WT, Lazarus C, Stern D, Small PA Jr. Peer nomination: A tool for identifying medical student exemplars in clinical competence and caring, evaluated at three medical schools. Acad Med. 2007;82: 1033–1039. Accessed June 24, 2011.
© 2011 Association of American Medical Colleges