Altruism is often defined as the belief and practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others. Generally, medical ethicists agree that medical doctors cannot be altruistic in their daily encounters with patients because they act within a professional relationship that entails the obligation to relieve suffering and care for their patients. While I personally agree with this position, I do not believe it applies to the new generation of medical educators.
For example, a few weeks ago I conducted a Train-the-Trainers course in Buenos Aires, Argentina. With participants from Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, and Chile, it was refreshing and promoted enthusiasm. None of the participants were required to be there; all are successful bronchoscopy educators in their thirties and forties with busy careers and family lives. Yet, they volunteered their time and energy to enhance their knowledge about teaching and to experiment with techniques and educational systems well outside their comfort zones.
Some might say that participating in such professional training is not so much a sign of the participant’s altruistic nature as it is simply a means for professional development and continued medical education. But most presumptive bronchoscopy educators are not paid for their teaching services, nor are they thanked by their institutions for taking on such important work. No one mandates that bronchoscopy educators become better teachers. In fact, in most countries, much of our medical education consists in a “see one-do one-teach one” mode of on-the-job training without ever teaching teachers how to teach. After all, teaching others has been a natural obligation of medical professionals since the Hippocratic Oath.
For a “caring profession,” however, “the see one-do one-teach one” educational model is not particularly caring. Other uncaring behaviors practiced in the name of education include learning to perform procedures by using live animals, glorifying the physical and emotional abuse associated with long work hours and sleepless nights on-call, overt sexism in the workplace, and the predomination of patriarchal dominance practiced for centuries.
The educational model emphasized in our Train-the-Trainer programs, on the other-hand, promotes team-building, self-reflection and repeated opportunities for positive feedback and reinforcement. Learning to optimize situational “teaching opportunities” separates education from clinical service. Targeted practice using simulation scenarios spares patients from the victimization that results from doctors climbing the learning curve one patient at a time.
For a new generation of educators such as those who came to our program in Argentina, embarking on such a novel voyage of exploration is altruistic because the benefits of helping others come at a cost to oneself. Well-engrained institutional biases and personal resistances must be overcome. New techniques must be learned and eventually mastered before teachers become comfortable incorporating changes into their practices. This journey also requires a questioning of the self, and provides an opportunity for personal-growth and self-actualization that goes beyond what is taught or experienced as part of a medical practice. Ultimately, this prompts an irreversible shift in philosophy by which educators take ownership of the new methodologies and forge them into a new paradigm; a paradigm whereby patients do not suffer the burden of physician-related training.