On Teaching the Sum While Paying Attention to the Parts: Whole Person Care through Ethnography in Medical Education

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Vasiliki Nataly Rahimzadeh
David Lessard
Peter Nugus


Objective—This article provides a reflection on medical teaching opportunities for whole person care based on our experiences mentoring 2nd-year medical students through an Ethnography Practicum at a Canadian university.                                                                  

Background—The Ethnography Practicum is a new addition to the Family Medicine Transition to Clinical Practice (TCP) curriculum introduced in the second year of medical school at McGill University. It involves 30 hours of instruction (6 hours in lectures with an instructor, and 24 hours in small-group tutorials with the authors), and 9 hours of fieldwork observations in various community health settings across Montreal, QC. The primary aims of the Practicum converge with those of the TCP generally in two important ways: to inculcate in students the concepts of patient centered care, and to promote family medicine as both an academic discipline and career option.                    

Results and Discussion— Our experiences illustrate two tensions that shape students’ expectations and experiences throughout their involvement in the Practicum and, in turn, highlight the implications for teaching whole-person care. First, ethnography as a combination of different methods has itself been the locus of tensions between positivist and critical traditions in the three last decades. Second, the Practicum is situated precisely at the crossroads of key moments on the professional identity formation continuum for our students. Such a crossroads is disruptive to the status quo of medical traineeship characteristic of the first two years in medical school, and thus reorients professional identity formation. The above tensions reveal how ethnography is not only a revered research tradition in the humanities, but can also be a conduit to whole person care-inspired clinical practice.

Conclusion—As instructors and mentors involved in this Ethnography Practicum, we are continually forging a new relevance for organizational ethnography in medical training, where medical students can reflect and act on competencies beyond clinical ones. The Practicum provides a space for students to wrestle with alternative epistemologies to understanding the social world in which medicine is embedded. We lastly provide pragmatic ways to better address these tensions in an effort to support students as they proceed through the (multifaceted) development of their professional identities as future physicians.

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How to Cite
Rahimzadeh, V. N., Lessard, D., & Nugus, P. (2015). On Teaching the Sum While Paying Attention to the Parts: Whole Person Care through Ethnography in Medical Education. The International Journal of Whole Person Care, 2(2). https://doi.org/10.26443/ijwpc.v2i2.96
Theoretical Papers
Author Biographies

Vasiliki Nataly Rahimzadeh, McGill University

PhD Candidate, Department of Family Medicine, McGill University

David Lessard, McGill University

Post Doctoral Fellow, Department of Family Medicine, McGill University


Peter Nugus, McGill University

Assistant Professor, Centre for Medical Education, McGill University


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