Q&A with Dr. Dorothy Levine, departing GHHS leader

Connecticut-based pediatrician seeded national initiatives that turned GHHS chapters into a global force of student-run community projects and advocacy

Dorothy Levine, MD, arrived at the Gold Foundation in 2016 to lead the Gold Humanism Honor Society. A pediatrician from Connecticut with a passion for advocacy and doctors in training, she quickly infused the honor society with new projects and energy, galvanized partners from all corners, and took on new causes with verve. She retired from the Gold Foundation in May 2020 to devote more time to the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, where she sits on the Board of Directors. We asked Dr. Levine to reflect on her time at the Gold Foundation and share her insights and advice.

How have you seen the Gold Humanism Honor Society (GHHS) change in your 4 years as director and then vice president?

Dr. Dorothy Levine makes opening remarks at the 2019 Gold Humanism Summit’s GHHS & MTL Symposium in Orlando, Florida.

When I took the lead at GHHS, after being a successful pediatrician practitioner for over 30 years as, I saw a great opportunity: Rather than simply acknowledging humanistic physicians as important role models, the honor society could become a galvanizing force of humanistic action for the student members and the schools.

I was convinced that GHHS members would have an even broader impact later in their careers if, during medical school, their leadership and advocacy skills were honed and encouraged. Designing and implementing community-oriented projects takes organization, tenacity, and even occasionally courage to question the status quo. I decided to focus GHHS’s attention on chapter projects that help develop multiple skillsets simultaneously.

The 2020 GHHS Chapter Check-in reflected that this change in direction had succeeded. It revealed that an astonishing 85% of our GHHS chapters had community engagement activities they designed themselves. Furthermore, two-thirds of chapters have student leaders; their energy, effort, and passion increases the chapter’s impact dramatically. Almost half of the chapters have official roles in their institution’s White Coat Ceremony, a Gold Foundation program designed to emphasize the importance of humanism to first-year students.

What are some of the most exciting national GHHS projects you’ve helped launch or support?

My favorite projects involve the largest number of medical students. Solidarity Week for Compassionate Patient Care and Tell Me More®, initially developed by GHHS members at University of Arizona College of Medicine-Tucson and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai respectively, were wildly popular before I arrived. Building on that model, I encouraged other “National Initiative” opportunities that gave GHHS students a chance to design local projects that supported national efforts to engage with humanism in medicine. Examples include Thank a Resident Day, which originated from the University of Missouri-Kansas City GHHS chapter, and Veterans Gold Health Initiative, inspired by the work of pediatrician and U.S. Army veteran Dr. Jeffrey Brown.

I was incredibly proud of GHHS relief efforts many chapters put forth to help the chapter in Ponce, Puerto Rico, as its members struggled to provide food, medicine, and other necessities after Hurricane Maria devastated the island.

Lastly, I spearheaded a pilot program for exceptional international medical schools interested in opening a GHHS chapter. The University of Queensland in Australia, The American University of Beirut, Lebanon, and the Sackler School of Medicine in Tel Aviv, Israel, met our stringent criteria and have become active participants in our network.

I thank Louisa Tvito, Director of Program Initiatives and the Gold Humanism Honor Society, and the Program Committee for their important contributions to developing and rolling out these programs. Many patients’ and physicians’ lives have been and will continue to be enriched as a result.

What advice do you have to new schools just starting a GHHS chapter to make the most of it? 

The benefits a GHHS chapter can bring are directly correlated with the energy the chapter devotes to encouraging compassionate care of patients, colleagues, and self. That sounds easy; it’s not. To make an impact, students need leadership skills, creativity, perseverance, and sometimes even courage to design and implement projects large or small, of an academic, educational, or research-oriented nature.

My advice to new chapters is make certain that their projects welcome all students, of every year, whether or not they are GHHS members. Finally, I suggest that current and new advisors read the 2020 GHHS Best Practices (a PDF recently emailed to all chapters and soon to be posted on our website) for helpful suggestions.

You’ve seen a huge breadth of chapter projects over your tenure. What are a few of your favorites or most memorable?

Dr. Dorothy Levine, left, with inaugural Vilcek-Gold Award winner Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, middle. at the 2019 AAMC Annual Meeting.

Helping worthy, wonderful student-designed projects reach fruition by giving them a small grant was terrific! Each of those small investments provided huge educational returns.  The 2019 GHHS Symposium showcased some of them. The reviews were excellent!  I will remain grateful and in awe of these remarkable students and faculty advisors for their innovative programming. I hope that the Gold Foundation will continue encouraging these efforts.


To give a few examples:

After attending Sidney Kimmel Medical College’s 2017 Compassion in Epidemics, I became enamored with the idea of regional conferences.  In the subsequent three years, we encouraged GHHS chapters in California, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Tennessee to plan one-day events. These conferences explored healthcare disparities, social justice, physician burnout and resilience, student-run free clinics, and medicine and the arts. Attendees have raved about these conferences’ seriousness of purpose, high quality, and affordability! Some events even offered CME. Another personal shout-out goes to the Annual Chapman Regional Symposium of Florida Gold Humanism Honor Society Chapters, which rotates between the member campuses each year.

Academic research projects to increase empathy also intrigue me. The Soul Food Project at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine had pre-clinical medical students making Meals on Wheels’ visits to homebound senior citizens. The project examined these weekly visits’ emotional effects on both students and seniors.

The Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Survivor Project from East Tennessee State University’s Quillen College of Medicine is one example of a project designed to close the glaring gaps in current medical school curricula.

Community engagement programs put medical students and faculty back in touch with their compassionate inner selves. Whether distributing warm clothing at SUNY Buffalo or providing solace after stillbirths near Lincoln Memorial University in Appalachia, students in these programs have an intimate view of the unavoidable accompaniments of illness: the grief and helplessness of suffering families. GHHS at the University of Minnesota appropriated a great idea from another national organization — Laundry Love. For the past few years, people in the entire medical community have helped out patients around that community’s campus at a local laundromat. While there, medical students help school-age children with homework; in sharing the trials and tribulations of everyday life, relationships deepen.

You’ve both been a medical student and pediatrician and seen up close, through GHHS chapters and your own daughter’s experience as a young physician, the particular challenges of practicing medicine in the 21st century and in this pandemic. Do you have any advice for our newest GHHS inductees about how to hold tight to their humanistic inclinations in a healthcare system that is increasingly broken?

Being a physician has always entailed dealing with the pain, suffering, and tragedy that illness, injury, and death bring to patients and families. Twentieth-century American physicians had to endure the “iron man” mentality that had physicians work unlimited sleepless hours during residency; as a result, many marriages failed and young physicians’ families fell apart. Adding women in significant numbers to medical school classes was an important factor that allowed the ongoing hierarchical bullying to finally be criticized.

In this 21st century, the American healthcare community has consolidated into large corporate entities (both as insurer of patients and employer of physicians.) That has decreased the pressures of running a small business, but it has added powerful layers of impersonal middle management that interfere with the doctor-patient relationship, the feeling of responsibility and commitment a physician has to care for each unique individual. This impersonal model has added to burnout.

Even that enormous problem now is dwarfed by the existential threat of COVID-19, a unifying threat, but one that can be dangerous, sometimes fatal to the patient, physician, nurse, and other less visible members of the care team. The financial implications of COVID threatens hospitals, leading to layoffs, furloughs, and serious loss of revenue while they struggle to protect workers and patients. Terror does not encourage dispassionate ennui in those it inhabits: I suspect that PTSD will run rampant through this generation’s healthcare workers.

Doctors, nurses, and others directly touching the patients now, who despite the national shortage of PPE, are on the front lines risking their lives during the COVID-19 crisis. I am in awe of and deeply grateful to them. They walk bravely into the hospital or clinic during this pandemic, workers whose humanism permits them to put themselves at risk every day.

But it is a time to bravely and judiciously use those advocacy skills, compassion for self and care for patients all together and demand that the safety of the healthcare professionals and their patients be protected. Today’s healthcare teams are highly educated and trained and cannot be replaced in short order. Society needs them now during the pandemic, and the need will continue afterwards to deliver babies, treat cancer, and soothe the terrible pain of the loss that our population is undergoing. No one should stand by and allow these courageous workers to be put at unnecessary risk.

What will you miss most about your work with the Gold Humanism Honor Society?

Dr. Dorothy Levine, middle of the back row, and the Gold Humanism Honor Society Advisory Council at its 2019 annual meeting.

The Gold Foundation is a magnet for caring, concerned employees, volunteers, donors, Board members, and supporters. I am grateful to have been given a chance to work alongside them. I will miss my colleagues and the wonderful new friends I have made all over the country thanks to GHHS-related phone calls, Advisory Council, committee meetings, and conferences.

How will you be spending your days after you depart from the Gold Foundation?

Of course, I am most of all hoping that the horror that of Covid-19 ends soon. Because I serve on the Board of Directors of Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, most particularly as Chair of the Board’s Committee on Quality Improvement and Patient Safety, I carefully follow the implications COVID-19 has for the medical community and society at large. I am working with those physicians, administrators, and government agencies to chart a safe and effective course so that Connecticut’s children receive the timely care they deserve.

On a personal note, I hope to spend more quality time with my 8-month-old grandchild who lives in Boston. I also anticipate our older son’s upcoming wedding, albeit in different surroundings than we initially envisioned.  I’m sorry that we will undoubtedly have to postpone our summer plans to scuba dive in Indonesia with our youngest son, who lives in California.

I knew Dr. Arnold Gold since my residency years at Columbia’s Babies Hospital. I am happy to have been a small part of his legacy. To all GHHS members and leaders, I would love to hear follow-up on the wonderful things we have worked on together!