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J Surg Educ. 2014 Jan-Feb;71(1):91-5. doi: 10.1016/j.jsurg.2013.07.001. Epub 2013 Oct 3.

Piloting a medical student observational experience with hospital-based trauma chaplains.

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Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Boston Medical Center, Boston, Massachusetts. Electronic address:
Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.



Medical students have typically received relatively modest training in approaches for engaging the concerns of patients and families facing life-threatening situations and terminal illnesses. We propose that medical students would perceive benefits to their communication skills, understanding of the role of the chaplain, and knowledge of emotional and spiritual needs of grieving patients and families after shadowing hospital-based trauma chaplains whose work focuses on emergency department traumas and intensive care units.


The authors developed a pilot program in which medical students shadowed a trauma chaplain during an on-call shift in an urban level 1 trauma center. Students subsequently completed an evaluative survey of their experience.


Of 21 participants, 14 (67%) completed the questionnaire. Students observed an average of 1.50 traumas and 3.57 interactions with patients or families. One-third of the students witnessed a death. More than 90% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that (1) the program provided them with a greater understanding of how to engage patients and families in difficult conversations; (2) they learned about the chaplain's role in the hospital; and (3) the experience was useful for their medical education, careers, and personal development. About two-thirds (9/14) perceived that they learned how to discuss spirituality with patients and families. All recommended the experience be part of the medical school curriculum.


Observational experiences with hospital-based trauma chaplains might be an effective nondidactic approach for teaching medical students effective communication with patients and families, collaboration with chaplains, and spirituality in patient care.


Interpersonal and Communication Skills; Patient Care; Professionalism; doctor-patient relations; hospital chaplaincy services; medical education; spirituality; trauma unit

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