Duke’s Theology, Medicine and Culture initiative pursues previously ignored questions—linking the divinity and medical schools.

The TMC initiative—founded in 2013 by Ray Barfield, its director and associate professor of pediatrics and Christian philosophy; Dr. Warren Kinghorn, assistant professor of psychiatry and pastoral and moral theology; and Dr. Richard Payne, Esther Colliflower professor of medicine and divinity—serves as an umbrella organization for interdisciplinary programs between the Divinity School and School of Medicine.

“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,” Barfield said. “Duke has committed itself to addressing these issues which can only be solved at the intersection of disciplines.”

An academic component of the initiative includes a new TMC certificate program in the Divinity School beginning this semester and a dual degree program for medical school students. Both academic programs are jointly funded by the divinity and medical schools.

“We have sought out medical students who are committed to our program and helped them rediscover their vocation and reinvent what it means to be a physician,” Barfield said.

Philip Choi, a second year pulmonary, allergy and critical care fellow, plans to pursue interdisciplinary research with the Divinity School during the second and third years of his fellowship.

“We find that a lot of patients who choose very aggressive care at the end of life despite limited medical options tend to be more religious,” Choi said. “Patients tend to be more religious than their doctors, and if we as doctors ignore parts of who a person is, we are not holistically healing them.”

Choi is taking classes at the Divinity School for an additional degree to help him enrich his training at Duke, he added.

During their third year at the School of Medicine, students can pursue a dual-degree to broaden their background in biomedicine. Amy Ehman, a third year medical student, chose to seek a master’s of theology in order to better recognize the way Christians interpret medical issues, she said.

“There is historical tension between doctors and Christians or religious individuals because sometimes they do not understand each other,” Ehman said. “I am interested in bridging that gap.”

Ehman added that Duke’s cutting edge research on this issue influenced her decision to attend its medical school.

“It behooves anyone to think about how the medical treatments they’re offering will relate to their patients, and Duke is at the forefront of that,” Ehman said. “I do not know of any other school that has such a program.”

As a part of the TMC initiative, the Divinity School will co-sponsor a conference titled, “Walking Together: Christian Communities and Faithful Responses to Mental Illness” in Houston, Texas next week.

“We are bringing together people to talk about mental illness across Christian history,” Kinghorn said. “We are examining when Christianity has helped people deal with mental illness and developing new ways of imagining how to walk alongside people with mental illness.”

By Summer 2015, TMC aims to launch “Reimagining Medicine,” a two-year collaboration with local congregations. The program would begin with a summer institute for these congregations with periodic check-in meetings over the course of the two years.

“We want to pioneer new ways of practice in local communities that would marry medicine and theology and give congregations a new way of talking about churches’ role in medicine, death and dying, supporting clinicians in their midst, and collaborating with healthcare systems in the community,” Kinghorn said. “It would be an invitation for congregations as we would tailor to their local needs and serve as an incubator of ideas and practices.”

This program remains in the planning stages due to a lack of funding, but TMC leaders will meet in February to discuss possibilities for “Reimagining Medicine.”

“If we’re going to do anything about addressing the existential crisis in American medicine, it’s going to have to be done at this interdisciplinary boundary,” Barfield said. “I do not know an institution that has the resources that Duke has to go after some of these questions in the way that we can do it, and the possibilities are unique at Duke.”