Character in Medicine

What is Character?

Kern National Network | CharacterThe KNN defines character as: "A constellation of characteristics—moral, civic, intellectual and performance—formed over time and manifest in dispositions and practices." 

Character can be viewed as the “complex [constellation] of psychological characteristics that [motivates and] enables individuals to act as moral agents.” (Berkowitz & Bier, 2004, p. 76)

These characteristics are developmentally dependent and contextually formed over time. Character manifests in dispositions and practices, which are influenced by situations and valued according to the sociocultural context.

The KNN's character work has been informed by the following sources: 

  • Berkowitz MW, Bier MC. Research-Based Character Education. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 2004;591(1):72-85.
  • Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues (2013). A Framework for Character Education in Schools. University of Birmingham, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues. Retrieved April 13, 2021.
  • In addition, this definition was adapted from and informed by the work of several other authors including Larry Nucci, PhD and Philippa Foot, PhD.


Developing and Employing the KNN's Character Definition

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  Steps Taken to Develop Character Definition
  • Formed KNN workgroup dedicated to developing character definition
  • Engaged with national experts
  • Reviewed character models and frameworks
  • Held series of KNN-engaged discussions beginning in June 2017
  • Reviewed proposed KNN character definition with KNN Board in March 2018
  • Disseminated definition across KNN workgroups
  • Formed writing team to begin publication of definition in literature
  • Began implementing definition of character across our KNN work
  Systematically Integrating Character in Medicine
  • Hosted a national webinar series focused on character, competence and caring (KNN)
  • Character topic stewards for medical education curriculum (UCSF School of Medicine)
  • Character definition integrated into student orientation and first year Foundations of Medicine courses (Vanderbilt School of Medicine)
  • Grand round speaker series focused on character (Dell Medical School at UT Austin)
  • Character definition integrated in new coaching program for faculty and students (Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth)
  • Character definition integrated into Innovation Proposal Process as well as KINETIC3 teaching academy for faculty (MCW Medical School)
  • Student discussion sessions reflecting on case studies of good character (UW School of Medicine and Public Health)
  • Integrating character into culture communications (Mayo Alix Clinic School of Medicine)

Why Character Matters in Medicine

Character matters in medicine because there are reciprocal relationships between character, trust and societal flourishing.

Character formation in medicine aims to affirm and nurture the development of traits, dispositions and practices that will facilitate wise action and promote trustworthy behaviors.


What is the Role of the Medical Profession?

The KNN believes that as a profession, medicine has a responsibility to attend to character at both the individual and organizational level by:

  • Affirming the character strengths of our members and nurturing their ongoing character growth.
  • Supporting the development of practical wisdom for the healthcare context.
  • Providing environments that allow all members of the healthcare team to flourish (patients, clinicians, learners, team members).

Additional Resources on Character

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  The Role of Character in Medicine

Presented by Carrie Barron, MD, on February 7, 2019, at Dell Medical School.


  Character in Medical Education: What is It and Why It Matters

Presented by Andrea Leep Hunderfund, MD, MHPE, Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine, October 25, 2018


  Character in Medical Education: What is it and Why Should it matter?

The Kern National Network Character in Medical Education webinar was presented on Wednesday, September 12, 2018, to a live national audience.


Ryan Spellecy, PhD
Professor of Bioethics and Medical Humanities
Medical College of Wisconsin

Christian Miller, PhD
Professor of Philosophy
Wake Forest University and Author of The Character Gap

Andrea Leep Hunderfund, MD, MPHE
Associate Professor of Neurology
Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine.


  Reflections on Character, Virtues and the Aims of Medical Education: What Moral Knowledge is Essential to Doctoring?

Presented by Larry R. Churchill, PhD, on June 15, 2018, at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.


  Character and the Practices of Care

Presented by William B. Cutrer, MD, MEd; Vanderbilt University, on September 17, 2018.


  Character: What is it, How Good Are We, and How Can We Become Better?

Presented by Christian B. Miller, PhD, on April 19, 2018, at the Medical College of Wisconsin.


  Parting the Clouds: Three Professionalism Frameworks in Medical Education

Article authored by David M. Irby, MDiv, PhD, and Stanley J. Hamstra, PhD.

Academic Medicine | December 2016


  The Jubilee Centre for Character & Virtues

The Jubilee Centre is a pioneering interdisciplinary research centre focusing on character, virtues and values in the interest of flourishing.