AMA Journal of Ethics®

Illuminating the art of medicine

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AMA Journal of Ethics®

Illuminating the art of medicine

Virtual Mentor. September 2000, Volume 2, Number 9.

Profile of a Role Model

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David Hilfiker, MD

David Hilfiker, founder of Joseph's House in Washington, D.C., and a champion for medical care for the poor, is recognized for being an exemplary role model in medicine for his work in helping homeless patients with AIDS.

Whether it is called charity care in medicine or pro bono work in the law, providing service to the poor is an important aspect of professional behavior. Taking care of the poor has become one of the cardinal virtues in medicine. Its lineage dates to the Medieval era, when both Christianity and Islam shaped medicine’s commitment to the poor. Despite the rise of the modern welfare state that seemingly has replaced many traditional forms of charity medical care, the need for medical professionals to devote themselves to the poor has never been greater.

One physician who has taken this obligation very seriously is . Formerly the Medical Director of Joseph’s House in Washington, DC, Dr. Hilfiker is currently Finance Director for Joseph's House. Although no longer in active medical practice, he is a family practitioner who spent 7 years practicing in rural Minnesota and 10 years in the inner city of Washington, DC. He began working at Community of Hope in 1983 in Washington, DC, and then helped found Christ House in 1985. He and his family lived for 5 years at Christ House, a 34-bed medical recovery shelter for homeless men, and for 3 years at Joseph's House, which he founded. The experience changed him in a profound way: "When you put yourself in a relationship with the poor, you begin to see the world in a very, very different way," he stated. He is also highly critical of our current health care system, which privileges the middle class and demonizes and marginalizes the poor. Although an active writer, he is now vocationally "in transition," trying to learn as much as he can from speaking with the men at Joseph's House.

In addition to his work with the poor, he is the author of Healing the Wounds (Pantheon, 1985) and Not All of Us Are Saints (Hill &Wang, 1994) as well as numerous articles, most dealing with the medical care of the poor. He has recently completed a short book on inner-city poverty. He has also written about the importance of recognizing and learning from medical mistakes.

For his work in helping homeless patients with AIDS, we are proud to present this month’s Virtual Mentor award to Dr. David Hilfiker.

We invite students to nominate a physician role model who, for them, has been an outstanding teacher by example. Students might, for example, describe in detail a single experience with a role model that was particularly meaningful to them, or describe a series of patient-related experiences with a role model that influenced their ethical development. In describing their experiences, we encourage students to examine why it was significant to them and how it may influence their professional behavior.

Each month, we will select profiles of role models to post in this space, and those selected will receive a gift of appreciation.

Nominations should include the following information:

1. Student's name, address, phone, e-mail, and medical school
2. Role model's name, title, and institution
3. Description of an experience (500-800 words)

Send your profiles to: Audiey Kao, MD, PhD, Institute for Ethics, AMA, 515 North State, Chicago, IL 60610

The viewpoints expressed on this site are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the AMA.