Nonprofit Leader Reflects on How to Foster “Care and Character” in Medicine in Light of COVID-19 Pandemic

This spring, the United States officially surpassed one million COVID-19 deaths, and that number continues to rise. As we reflect on that grim milestone, Philanthropy Roundtable recently spoke with Dr. Cheryl Maurana, senior vice president for Strategic Academic Partnerships, professor of population health at the Medical College of Wisconsin and founding director of the Kern National Network (KNN) for Caring and Character in Medicine. During this discussion, Maurana shared some of the challenges and opportunities the pandemic has presented for the medical and philanthropic sectors, including record numbers of professionals opting for early retirement or leaving the sector prematurely due to burnout. To respond to these and other obstacles facing the medical community, KNN and its partners, including medical schools and stakeholders nationwide, are working to “transform health care’s educational and practice settings and create the conditions of possibility for flourishing within health care.” Through its engagement with experts and thought leaders, KNN has developed an integrated framework that promotes caring, character, practical wisdom and human flourishing to influence the health care ecosystem, engage broader society and transform medical education.

Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the medical community at large?

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the altruism and perseverance of health care professionals. However, it has also posed unique challenges at all stages of the medical profession, affecting students and frontline caregivers alike. It has challenged well-being and resilience and has increased uncertainty and complexity in the field. This crisis has also highlighted the acute needs of health care workers facing burnout

As such, it is essential to foster more positive clinical learning and practice environments that support lifelong education and wellness for practitioners. Accordingly, the pandemic has heightened the need to focus on ways to help the medical community flourish, including rebuilding trust between health experts and the public, and reexamining the social contract and concepts of professionalism in medicine.

Q: The generosity of the Kern Family Foundation and Kern Family Trust led to the development and continued work of the Kern National Network for Caring and Character in Medicine. How did the Kern National Network get its start and what is its mission?

A transformational philanthropic investment from the Kern Family Foundation and Kern Family Trust in 2017 enabled the Medical College of Wisconsin to establish the Kern National Network for Caring and Character in Medicine. The Kern Family Foundation has been a thoughtful partner, sharing wisdom and connecting us with an extensive network of experts from whom we have learned so much. This partnership has been essential to our success. The network was designed to demonstrate how medical schools with a shared commitment to character and caring could create best practices across different school structures and cultures, accelerate innovation and collaboration and drive national change in medical education.

The KNN is now a growing national movement whose work is focused on the integration of four foundational elements within the profession of medicine: caring, character, practical wisdom and human flourishing. The KNN’s integrated framework brings these elements together and serves as a cornerstone of our efforts to connect and convene stakeholders across the health care ecosystem, catalyze transformative initiatives and influence policy and systems change. When clinical learning environments, practice settings and health systems cultivate wholeness of being, meaning and purpose — along with competence and continuous improvement — then practitioners, their patients and humanity can truly flourish. That is our aspirational goal: advancing caring and character in medicine to ignite a positive culture change that helps individuals, community and society.

With the KNN’s seven founding member schools and their 3,500+ medical students, we are influencing high-impact touchpoints across the health care landscape, including holistic admissions; learner engagement, wellness and leadership; faculty development; clinical learning environments and care teams and system leaders.

We’re excited for our next phase, during which we’ll expand membership and work to incorporate our integrated framework into a significant portion of new and existing medical schools, as well as academic health systems in the United States. 

Q: In response to growing polarization within the medical community, KNN recently launched the KNN Bridging Initiative. Can you tell us more about this new initiative?

In health care, as in the U.S. today, polarization and a lack of respect for diversity of thought have become unprecedented challenges for human flourishing.

In the last several years, the pandemic and its impact on health and health care, culture and society have brought an especially sharp focus on issues that are deeply personal for many and difficult to discuss under the best of circumstances. In this turbulent environment, it has become more challenging to hold sustained, rigorous and vitally important discussions about which actions to take and when. Without seeking to understand diverse perspectives, it is more common to retreat to “echo chambers” of like-minded viewpoints and avoid or even oppose dialogue. The recently launched KNN Bridging Across Differences initiative (Bridging) will provide a framework for engagement across groups and individuals with different views on topics, including those impacting the health care ecosystem. Our goal is to increase understanding in medical and health professions education as well as health care, and find common ground, a foundation for creating value. The Bridging initiative will be developing three components: collaborative thought leadership, a community of practice and a fellowship program for generational impact.

The objective of the KNN Bridging initiative is to create space for discussions and learning critical to the health ecosystem and to human flourishing as a whole. The KNN is uniquely positioned to lead the effort to define bridging and develop an approach to spread bridging practices, such as by developing, testing and disseminating various tools. The KNN’s movement will be grounded in open inquiry and civil discourse. The network will support viewpoint diversity that bridges across differences, building a culture strengthened by those differences and connected by trust.

Q: As you consider the Kern Family Foundation’s vital support for your work, how can other philanthropists engage with you?

The KNN is deeply grateful for the longstanding partnership with the Kern Family Foundation, which recently renewed its support for advancing caring and character in medicine. (See remarks by Cheryl Maurana regarding the announcement of a $50 million investment by the Kern Family Foundation.)

As our work continues to grow, including the KNN Bridging initiative and our expansion to include other members in the network, we are actively looking to philanthropy to help us further our goals. We welcome additional partners who seek to transform medical education and clinical care, infuse caring and character in the national health care landscape and advance broader policy and systems change, and are committed to bridging across differences toward flourishing.If you are interested in learning more about Kern National Network’s initiatives, please contact Philanthropy Roundtable Program Director Esther Larson.

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