Teaching by Example

The On Doctoring program at the Geisel School of Medicine helps transform medical students into compassionate clinicians—a mission John and Karen Sanders are proud to support.

Over the course of a long career in cardiac surgery at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, John Sanders Jr., MD, Dartmouth College Class of 1964, taught dozens of residents and interns about how patients’ bodies work.
But after retiring as a surgeon, he took a different approach to teaching. Now, as a facilitator in the On Doctoring program at the Geisel School of Medicine, Sanders helps medical students understand how patients’ minds and spirits work.

In simulated clinics, Sanders and the other On Doctoring facilitators model for their
students those critical professional and interpersonal skills that augment medical expertise, such as how to make patients feel comfortable in a consultation and how to ask questions that elicit useful information about their medical conditions. “It’s one of our most important courses,” he says. “We go well beyond the science of medicine and work with students on how to interact with patients.”

The On Doctoring program also creates close personal mentorships between experienced physicians and small groups of students. “It’s a two-year commitment to work with the same group of eight to ten students,” Sanders explains. “That enables us to get to know each other very well. My wife Karen and I have hosted my students at our house for dinners and shared theater tickets with them. I act as their advisor and mentor. It creates a nice personal bond in a lower-stress environment than the classroom.”

The Soul of the Curriculum

Testifying to his belief in the importance of the On Doctoring program, John and Karen Sanders established a charitable gift annuity to benefit it. “I feel passionate about On Doctoring,” he says. “Helping my students has enabled me to learn new things as well. We talk to patients about partner violence, about sexuality and gender issues, topics that emerged in the medical context long after I began practicing as a physician. In the process of educating myself to teach this class, I’ve enriched my own knowledge of medicine.”
His students bring useful insights to the discussion as well. “Geisel is rich with diversity and multiculturalism,” he says, recalling the unique contributions of a Muslim student and another raised in sub-Saharan Africa. “I’m grateful to have students from different religious or ethnic traditions who can share their own culture’s approach to various problems. It becomes a two-way street.”

As to why Sanders and his wife chose to earmark their gift for the On Doctoring program, “I see it as the soul of our curriculum,” he says. “You can teach the science of medicine in a lab or a classroom, but you can’t teach interpersonal skills except by example. That’s why I believe it’s critical that we are able to maintain this program. Ultimately, regardless of what a medical student decides to do in terms of a practice or specialty, the rudiments of doctor-patient interaction will always be a vital component. We facilitators in the On Doctoring program are the first clinicians that medical students spend significant time with. It’s an honor and a privilege to play that role in their training.”