2023 AAMC honoree Dr. Jaclyn Nunziato: “Humanism is your superpower”

The 2023 Arnold P. Gold Foundation Humanism in Medicine recipient shared her how-to guide for humanism at the AAMC’s Learn Serve Lead conference

At the 2023 AAMC Annual Meeting in Seattle, Dr. Jaclyn Nunziato of Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine (VTCSOM) was honored with this year’s Arnold P. Gold Foundation Humanism in Medicine Award and presented an inspiring “how-to guide for humanism” lecture to medical students.

As the winner of this award, which is jointly given by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) and The Arnold P. Gold Foundation, Dr. Nunziato was nominated by her students for her outstanding compassionate care and mentoring. She is Associate Professor of obstetrics and gynecology at VTCSOM.

Dr. Nunziato giving her speech

The AAMC’s Organization of Student Representatives (OSR) coordinates the award and hosts an annual luncheon, which features a lecture by the honoree. AAMC President and CEO Dr. David J. Skorton opened the event on Friday, Nov. 4, by emphasizing the importance of humanism.

“The commitment of both the Gold Foundation and the AAMC to continue supporting and promoting humanism and initiatives like this award and beyond is unbelievably important,” Dr. Skorton said. “And the more we see about the world around us, the more we understand that humanism is an ingredient that we need great, great helpings of everywhere, including medicine.”

Dr. Skorton also called upon the students for help in supporting humanism in healthcare: “We very much need your wisdom. The future is going to be in your hands.”

OSR Chair Dilpreet Kaeley, a student at University of Toledo College of Medicine and Life Sciences, gave remarks on behalf of the OSR.

Then Gold President and CEO Dr. Kathleen Reeves spoke about the mission of the Gold Foundation and the extraordinary impact of these medical students. Dr. Reeves worked closely with students for 20 years in leadership positions at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University, including as Senior Associate Dean of Student Affairs, and observed the differences between previous generations and this generation of medical students.

“It seems, at least for me, that this is a time in history when many of you as students are coming to the work with a greater understanding of many of the issues medicine is facing than we have had,” Dr. Reeves said. “Your commitment to advocacy, your lived experiences, what was available to you in higher education around inclusivity, marginalization, inequity, race and racism has informed you in a way we were not. But you are teaching us; the patients are teaching us. And it’s time we work together to create human centered spaces where humanism can thrive.”

Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine medical student Janeline Wong, who was part of the group of students who nominated Dr. Nunziato, introduced her professor.

Dr. Nunziato began her talk by noting that Dr. Arnold P. Gold envisioned the White Coat Ceremony, which emphasizes the importance of humanism in healthcare.

“Humanism is your clinical superpower,” she said. “I hope you wear your white coat as a cape and help it unlock your superpower of humanism.”

In her inspiring presentation, Dr. Nunziato shared with the medical students 10 critical steps to build this power:

  1. Know yourself and your passions
  2. Identify your circles of influence
  3. Examine your own biases and actively manage them
  4. Trauma-informed Care: Using your 5 senses
  5. Build your network with equity and community
  6. Be a change agent
  7. Build trust
  8. Find comfort in failure
  9. Perfect the apology
  10. Lead with empathy

“There is no treatment, no intervention, no quality improvement project that will ever replace the need for humanism in medicine,” said Dr. Nunziato.

Group, from left: AAMC President Emeritus and Gold Trustee Dr. Darrell Kirch, Dr. Nunziato, President and CEO of the Gold Foundation Dr. Kathleen Reeves, and Gold Foundation co-founder Dr. Sandra Gold

Dr. Nunziato also placed bright red and yellow humanism pins on the luncheon tables for the attendees, explaining that she learned from her brother, who is retiring from the U.S. Navy this week after 25 years, the tradition of creating a small token to mark important milestones. Military leaders and groups often design “challenge coins,” which display their particular name or mission.

“Empathy can be viewed as a weakness,” she said. “And in fact, I used to hear that a lot. But empathy is an asset. It will never be a liability.”

Dr. Nunziato included 3 calls to action for future doctors in her remarks:

  • Find your passion
  • Examine opportunities for you to incorporate humanism into your everyday practice
  • Avoid dehumanizing

“Humanism can seem passive,” Dr. Nunziato noted. “I want to implore you not to be passive about this. The trust action here is not to dehumanize. And honestly, it’s easy in medicine to dehumanize.”

She shared a quote from researcher and storyteller Brené Brown: “Dehumanization is the process by which we become accepting of violations against human nature, the human spirit, and, for many of us, violations against the central tenets of our faith.” And she urged any medical students who were not familiar with Dr. Brown’s research and books around vulnerability and wholehearted living to look into them.

At the close of the event, Dr. Reeves addressed the room of medical students.

“What you just heard was a call to action,” Dr. Reeves said. “Medicine is not as humanistic as it needs to be. We are counting on you to take medicine where it needs to go.”

Brianne Alcala

Brianne Alcala is the Editor in Chief and Chief Communications Officer for the Gold Foundation.