In 2015, we saluted Arnold P. Gold, MD, for founding The Arnold P. Gold Foundation, which works with health care professionals to ensure that compassion, respect, and empathy are at the core of all health care interactions.  

In the late 1980s, Arnold Gold, MD, a renowned pediatric neurologist and professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, had begun to worry that medical students and residents were so enamored of new advances in science and technology that they were increasingly distancing themselves from their patients. The day Dr. Gold overheard a resident on rounds refer to a patient—a teenager with a neuroblastoma—as “the tumor in Room 207,” he knew he had to act.

Along with his wife Sandra, a community leader with a doctorate in educational counseling, whom he calls “my partner and best advisor,” he founded, in 1988, The Arnold P. Gold Foundation, to advance humanism in the practice of medicine by fostering a culture of scientific excellence, respect, dignity, and compassion for patients and fellow professionals.

“If you only learn the science, then you’ve only learned half the job,” says Arnold, who practiced and taught for 57 years. Research shows that humanistic care results in better outcomes and lower costs, he notes. But changing the culture and content of medical training was an enormous challenge. “A respected leader once told me it would be easier to move a cemetery,” he recalls. Still, Arnold, as the Foundation’s board chairman, Sandra, as its president and CEO, and a dedicated board of physicians and business leaders handpicked by Arnold were committed to doing just that, with Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons as their first partner. And today, the Foundation’s programs, rituals, awards, and research initiatives have made their mark.

The inspiration for what is the Foundation’s signature—and most widely practiced—program came to Arnold as he listened to a class of Columbia medical school students recite the Hippocratic Oath on graduation day. “I turned to Sandra and said, ‘This is so important but it’s four years too late. Students should take an oath like this on the first day of medical school, not the last,’” he says. In 1993, the Foundation’s first White Coat Ceremony took place. As a new class of Columbia students had white jackets placed on their shoulders, they recited an oath emphasizing the importance of compassionate care as well as scientific proficiency. Today almost 100 percent of accredited medical schools in the U.S. and Canada—and 13 other countries—sponsor a White Coat ceremony.

Recognizing individuals who are exemplars of humanistic patient care and can serve as role models, mentors, and leaders in medicine is another core tenet of the Foundation. Each year, one graduating medical student and one faculty member at over 100 medical schools are chosen to receive the Foundation’s prestigious Leonard Tow Humanism in Medicine Award. The Gold Humanism Honor Society now has 22,000 members in training and practice; other Gold Foundation awards also recognize medical school faculty and residents for setting the standards for compassionate, respectful care. Additionally, the Foundation’s Research Institute supports and conducts original investigation of the ways compassionate care leads to positive change in learning and medical practice, and emphasizes work that includes the perspectives of patients and their families.

In today’s rapidly changing health care landscape, reinforcing humanism in medicine has never been more important, say both Arnold, now the Foundation’s chairman emeritus, and Sandra, who, after running the Foundation for 25 years, now serves as an advisor to president and CEO Richard I. Levin, MD. And the appetite for that is clearly there.

A growing number of nursing and physician assistant schools are now offering the Foundation’s programs, and exciting new programs are gaining momentum. In 2014, Gold Humanism Honor Society members at the Icahn Medical School at Mount Sinai launched the “Tell Me More” program, which encourages medical school students to learn more about their patients’ lives and share that information with the entire health care team. The response has been so favorable that the Gold Foundation is launching a “Tell Me More” pilot program in medical institutions across the country.

Together, these initiatives are advancing widespread understanding of the role of compassion in health care. On behalf of the entire New York health care community, the United Hospital Fund is proud to present Dr. Arnold Gold with the Distinguished Community Service Award, for launching a revolution, significantly changing the culture of medical education and practice, and making a profound impact on thousands of health care professionals and the patients and families for whom they provide care.

Reprinted from the 2015 United Hospital Fund Gala program.