Justice Education

Good Work
November 2023

Flourishing as a Physician: Columbia’s Character Cooperatives

Wes Siscoe

Lydia Dugdale could see it. Her students weren’t well. Whether it was the strain of four years at Columbia’s medical school, or being ill-prepared to face the kind of death and suffering that they encountered treating their patients, her students often seemed distressed and overwhelmed. Even though they might be making it through medical school, they weren’t being formed as whole persons.

That’s when Dugdale, Professor of Medicine and Director of the Center for Clinical Medical Ethics, decided to create the Columbia Character Cooperatives, small communities of students and faculty that thoughtfully examine how to become good and thriving healthcare professionals. 

“What we’ve found is that not only do the cooperatives create space for naming virtues and talking about what it means to live a life of virtue, but the work of cultivating virtue also builds hope and community, the sort of community that strengthens students as they continue their medical training,” Dugdale said.

Ashley Moyse, Assistant Professor of Medical Ethics at the Columbia Center for Clinical Medical Ethics, was brought in to direct the program. With an expertise in medical ethics, theology, and character formation, Moyse worked with Dugdale to develop a structure for the Character Cooperatives.

“There are 3 pillars to what we do,” said Moyse. “First, our monthly dinner discussions are the basis of our shared community. Secondly, we do one-on-one mentoring that allows students to connect with faculty and ask the hard questions – both medical and existential. Having a theologian on the team provides someone that students could go to with these deeper questions, ones that go beyond technical, medical expertise.”

“Along with these two elements, we also emphasize a number of cultural experiences that occur throughout New York City,” said Moyse. “In the fall of last year, we were led by a medieval philosopher through the Met Cloisters, which are modeled on the Order of St. Benedict.”

“Then early in the new year,” Moyse continued, “an architect walked us through the layout of the Abbey of St. Gall. He spoke also about spatial and temporal practices that shaped the lives of the monks—lives ordered also by the Order of St. Benedict. Those experiences then led to a great dinner discussion about how the spaces we occupy (including the hospital) can shape us as persons.”

So far, the results have been promising. Though the program is just entering its second year, applications to be a part of a cooperative have already increased by 50%. And just recently, Moyse got a message from a previous student, now a resident at a prestigious New England program, about how much they appreciated the initiative.

“The student was checking in to let me know how their year was going, and they said that the discussions we had over dinner have really offered them strength and solace as they have encountered tough days at their residency,” Moyse said. “We like the language of cooperatives because this is not a one-time project. Character formation is a lifelong endeavor, and what we’re doing here is just one part of the process. Hearing back from a student in the next phase of their journey was encouraging.”

Dugdale and Moyse are now looking at strategies to grow the program. While it is unapologetically small scale, built on the formation of community and deep friendships, “the first year was a pilot, and it has been really successful,” said Dugdale. “Our plan is to expand quite significantly this year, and so far we have the resources to meet the needs of more students.”