Rita Charon to Direct Apgar Academy

Rita Charon, MD, PhD

Rita Charon, MD, PhD, professor of medicine and founder of the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia, has been named director of the Virginia Apgar Academy of Medical Educators at P&S. The academy’s mission is to promote, reward, and support the teaching of medical students, residents, fellows, and fellow faculty. 

The current membership of the academy is about 80 members. The organization hosts workshops on effective teaching and teaching tools and makes three-minute teaching tips available through YouTube videos. An endowment funded by the Vanneck-Bailey Foundation supports one academy member’s work each year. This year’s recipient, Anne Armstrong-Coben, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics and a P&S advisory dean, will use the funding to provide more resources to the advisory deans, who help medical students throughout their time at P&S. 

The academy also has a small-grant program, which awards $5,000 per faculty member in “startup” funds to conduct research in medical education.

Dr. Charon said she will apply her experience in curriculum development to her task as director of the academy. “Some years ago I received a K07 NIH grant to improve the social, cultural, and interpersonal content of the medical school curriculum. We used the grant for faculty development around these areas. This faculty development seminar contributed in a major way to the creation of the innovative Foundations of Clinical Medicine course, which is taught across all four years of P&S. We also realized that members of K07, as we called the faculty seminar, were becoming course directors and clerkship directors. The group had become a breeding ground for leaders in the P&S curriculum.”

P&S is unique among medical schools for the numbers of students and faculty who are accomplished in the humanities and the arts, says Dr. Charon. “Physicians and scientists are not only involved in biological disease and health, we are the ones who come to understand the limits of life, the nature of suffering, and the certainty of mortality. When patients get sick and approach death are the times that all will reach for some comprehension of what their time on Earth has meant. No wonder doctors and scientists tend to be readers, artists, writers, and musicians. We find we need to seek out the sources of insight and meaning around us, perhaps in part to counteract or at least give some solace to the suffering and loss that we witness every day.”

Dr. Charon wants the academy to provide additional resources to help P&S faculty improve as teachers and grow in their own intellectual searches. “I’d love to be able to offer graduate-level seminars, reading groups, and study circles in things like phenomenology, the philosophy of science, and modern literature to really explore questions about meaning, subjective experience, perceiving the lives of others, and interpreting what patients tell us about themselves. We need ways to come to terms with the uncertainties we live with and the doubts we absorb in giving even basic recommendations to patients. Instead of what is called burnout among clinicians, perhaps we can encourage a kind of deep looking, a deep attention to our practice, what we learn from it about the human condition, and the bottomless opportunity practice gives us to commit acts of kindness. We are in the position to recognize our patients and our students for who they are in very powerful ways. I want to help our physicians and scientists explore the really fundamental dimensions of their work and lives in medicine, and I think gathering together to study, read, write, and pay attention are the ways to get there.”

To remain faithful to the academy’s enduring mandate to support P&S faculty members’ medical education scholarship and research while expanding into new intellectual areas, Dr. Charon is continuing and intensifying the academy’s signature programs in faculty development as educators, training in methods of educational research, and support for innovative pedagogic initiatives of P&S faculty. Apgar is committed to becoming a generative and inclusive place for all P&S faculty inspired by their roles as teachers and learners.

The Apgar Academy is named for Virginia Apgar’33, developer of the Apgar Score to assess newborn health, the first woman to be named a full professor at P&S, a gifted musician, and a memorable mentor to many students, residents, and faculty members during her many years on the faculty.