Serving In Academic Medicine

In a previous post, I said I’d share some takeaways from our two speakers at our local healthcare retreat.  This is the first of those two posts, and it concerns the message given by Dr. Smith (name changed to keep a lower profile), who works at a local teaching hospital.  I think you’ll find his comments helpful as you think about serving Christ in an academic environment.

To begin with, Dr. Smith emphasized that he strives to be, first and foremost, a Christian rather a physician who’s also a Christian.  In an environment where everybody has a title, simply bearing the name of Christ well – and finding your identity there – is what really counts.  This is also in contrast to being a Christian Nice Guy, a (genuine) believer who smiles and does whatever you ask him to, but fails to live courageously and clearly for Christ.  In both cases, the courage to live distinctively comes from finding our value and security in what God, not the people around us, say.  This is much easier said than done, and something we need to come back to routinely as we preach the gospel to ourselves moment-to-moment.

Dr. Smith has also found the academy to be a great place for sharing his faith, both directly and indirectly.  Physicians serving in this environment typically wear a number of hats, which affords opportunity for interactions not only with other Christians, but also with patients, students and residents, colleagues and staff who do not share his faith perspective.

Here are a few specifics that I found insightful:

  • In general, working hard and being competent (not necessarily the brightest or best) are important.  This not only honors God, but gives you a platform for talking about God when the opportunities arise.  No one will want to hear about Who you serve if they don’t respect how you serve.
  • Patients.  Patients are often at a place of physical vulnerability, which often creates an openness to spiritual discussion.  Physicians should be ready to discuss these things with permission and respect, but also boldness.  Spiritual histories (see below) are often a great starting point in this regard.
  • Students, residents.  While on service, Dr. Smith often has medical students and residents with him as he sees patients, presenting key opportunities to offer not only clinical, but spiritual, instruction.  He always takes a simple spiritual history, something he is ready to justify by pointing to the scientific literature, which shows that dealing with spirituality results in better health outcomes, is desired by most patients, and is in accordance with medical “best practices.”  Dr. Smith also uses specific teaching times to talk about these matters, and will invite students/residents to pray with/for patients who show interest in spiritual matters.
  • Colleagues, supervisors.  Again, character and competency are especially important here since respect won’t come through being further along in your training.  Boldness and risk are required since academic physicians have a reputation for being negatively inclined toward faith.  As an example, Dr. Smith shared how he’s going to hand out an appropriate Christian book to one of his colleagues and see what God does with that.
  • Staff.  Often, you’ll find other believers among staff who can challenge and encourage you.  Dr. Smith, for instance, learned that two janitors were already sharing Christ with some of his patients, which really spurred him on to be more straightforward himself.

The specifics of any particular calling within academic medicine vary greatly, so these tips are starting points that need to be thoughtfully applied.  At the same time, they are great guidelines that should be relevant in most situations.  If God is calling you to serve in the academy, He can use you there to make a powerful impact.

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