Politics and social justice should not be part of medical school according to the former associate dean of curriculum at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.
Stanley Goldfarb, a kidney specialist and longtime faculty member at Penn, made his case in a Wall Street Journal column, saying that med schools should not spend time on gun violence, climate change, and “other progressive causes only tangentially related to treating illness.”
Many of Goldfarb’s fellow physicians, including some of his Penn colleagues, took exception to his piece, which was posted online Thursday and appeared in Friday’s print edition.
Kit Delgado, an emergency medicine specialist at Penn, said traditional med-school curriculums do not fully prepare students to treat illness and trauma if they do not also address underlying social causes.
“Excellent clinical care for survivors goes to waste if the root causes that led to the injury in the first place are not addressed and the patient is shot again,” Delgado wrote on Twitter.
Megan Ranney, an emergency medicine specialist and associate professor at Brown University’s Alpert School of Medicine, was more blunt.
“This is absolutely drivel,” she tweeted. “About as BS as anything I’ve heard. The public’s health IS OUR JOB. And throughout history we, as doctors, have helped lead change in behalf of our patients’ health. Whether smallpox vaccines, sanitation, or seatbelts, #ThisIsOurLane.”
Her hashtag was a reference to the aftermath of recent mass shootings, when physicians who advocate for gun-safety measures have been told by gun-rights activists to “stay in your lane.”
Goldfarb did not dispute that some of what he called social justice issues were worthwhile, but he warned that any time spent teaching them in medical school meant less time for clinical care.
“These educators focus on eliminating health disparities and ensuring that the next generation of physicians is well-equipped to deal with cultural diversity, which are worthwhile goals,” Goldfarb wrote. “But teaching these issues is coming at the expense of rigorous training in medical science.”
Goldfarb graduated from the University of Rochester medical school in 1969, according to his Penn Medicine profile page. In an email, he said he had received some positive responses from students and faculty.
The Penn communications office did not respond to a request for an interview with Goldfarb, but shared a letter from Dean J. Larry Jameson and Senior Vice Dean Suzanne Rose that was sent to students and faculty.
It read, in part:
“Please know that the views expressed by Dr. Goldfarb in this column reflect his personal opinions and do not reflect the values of the Perelman School of Medicine. We deeply value inclusion and diversity as fundamental to effective health care delivery, creativity, discovery, and life-long learning. We are committed to ensuring a rigorous and comprehensive medical education that includes examination of the many social and cultural issues that influence health, from violence within communities to changes in the environment around us.”
In his column, Goldfarb said that while he was associate dean of curriculum at Penn, he was “chastised by a faculty member for not including a program on climate change in the course of study.”
Some medical schools already have added lessons on climate change. In addition to covering the direct effects of warmer temperatures on the old and frail, faculty are addressing secondary impacts such as how a warming planet is expected to fuel the spread of insect-borne diseases.
A few physicians on social media were supportive of Goldfarb.
Karan Chhabra, a University of Michigan faculty member, tweeted that medical school curriculums already are packed, and that certain issues might be better handled in college.
“Med students still have 4 years of undergrad to become liberally educated,” he wrote.
Fraz Ismat, a former post-doctoral fellow at Penn and at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said Goldfarb was being unfairly criticized. Medical school is for learning to practice medicine, he said.
“You’re learning specific technical things that have to do with the practice of a very technical art,” said Ismat, who now works in the pharmaceutical industry in New Jersey. “It shouldn’t be the case that we need in medical education to dictate how people ought to think.”
It is not Goldfarb’s first time in the spotlight. In 2008, he wrote in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology that there was no evidence to support the oft-repeated advice that people need eight glasses of water a day.
That placed him in high demand for media interviews, some of which he found to be lacking in intellectual rigor. He described the experience in a follow-up column in the same journal, titled “My 15 Minutes of Fame.”
Now it seems he is getting another 15.