Mixing medicine and religionInterdisciplinarity, usually an ill-defined buzzword at Duke, has found a concrete purpose in a partnership between the Divinity School and the School of Medicine. The jointly launched Theology, Medicine and Culture initiative seeks to "deepen theological reflection, church practice, and community formation related to the human experience of illness, suffering and death."
Founded in 2013, TMC offers Divinity students the option of pursuing a certificate program and medical students the opportunity to attain a dual degree. Ray Barfield, the program’s director, stresses TMC’s role in promoting holistic medicine, noting that, “medicine is failing, and one of the main reasons is because the only language it has access to is the incredibly efficient and devastatingly limited language of biology.”
By broadening doctors’ vocabularies, the joint program seeks to address two common criticisms of health care delivery: the inability of many doctors to communicate effectively with patients and a lack of cultural competency among health care providers.
Doctors who coolly treat their patients as test subjects or who fail to connect with them can sow mistrust and, in some cases, worsen health outcomes. Cultural tone-deafness—doctors failing to understand a patient’s background—can cause patients to remain wary of their health care providers and lead to poor treatment.
It seems plausible that theological study would help doctors better communicate with and understand the beliefs of their Christian patients. TMC may, for this reason, help some doctors improve their ability to treat Christians. Although medical practice should be informed by science, the medical profession can use theological knowledge to improve care. As Medical School Fellow Philip Choi notes, many patients who choose aggressive end-of-life care are more religious, and an understanding of theology promises to help any doctor, especially one who guides patients through difficult end-of-life choices.
The scope of the TMC program is, however, necessarily limited, and we doubt that religious training addresses challenges in medical care better than other forms of humanistic learning and cultural education. That many patients are Christian and that religion touches on broad questions of existence does not mean that studying in the Divinity School will improve a doctor’s bedside manner more than reading Shakespeare will. TMC also privileges a Christian theological education over a broad study of religious beliefs and practices. Although focusing on Christianity makes sense given that Duke boasts an exceptional Divinity School, the emphasis on Christian doctrine further confines the program’s scope.
TMC’s mission is innovative and commendable. But it is narrow. Programs designed to improve doctors’ communication skills should focus on just that—they should train medical students in methods and techniques for relating to and speaking with other human beings. Patients’ backgrounds are, moreover, broader than religion alone, and programs designed to improve doctor empathy should accommodate a greater range of cultural and religious practices and beliefs.
Communication skills go beyond theological inquiry, and religion is not the only defining feature of identity. TMC is valiant but insufficient.