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Faculty Focus: Lance Stell Shares Medical Ethics Expertise at Davidson and in the Community

by Morgan Orangi '13
Lance Stell
Students in Lance Stell’s “Health Care Ethics” course not only become physicians, but also hospital administrators and nurses.

Since starting at the college in 1976, the John E. and Mary West Thatcher Professor of Philosophy Lance Stell has taken on various roles on and off campus, and has encouraged students to do the same.

At Davidson, he is the current Director of the Medical Humanities Program, and has served as chair of the philosophy department and as a professor in the humanities program. Outside of the college, Stell serves as a certified consultant for criminal and civil cases related to medical malpractice, the Region Eleven Representative at the OPTN/UNOS Ethics Committee, and Medical Ethicist at the Carolinas Medical Center (CMC) in Charlotte.

"In college I considered becoming a physician, but also had a strong interest in philosophy and law," Stell said. "It turns out that I've gotten to do all three and even learn from teaching courses in less familiar areas during my time at Davidson."

Supporting Medical Humanities

When Davidson was invited to apply to the Henry Luce Foundation in 1986, Stell chaired the committee that proposed a program merging pre-medicine and the humanities. Although the proposal didn't receive funding, Davidson President Emeritus Bob Williams decided that the program was worth establishing at the college.

That same year, contributions from the family of Frederick Womble Speas '43, who died of leukemia while studying at the Wake Forest School of Medicine, made it possible for Davidson to host an annual medical ethics colloquium.

"We wanted to encourage the family's request for medical humanities by putting together a seminar that both memorialized Speas and provided the opportunity for faculty and students to learn about medical humanities and current bioethical issues," Stell said.

Davidson's medical humanities program was solidified in 1988 when Visiting Professor of Philosophy and Ethics Rosemarie Tong became its first director.

Venturing into the Community

Stell's growing interest in medicine, combined with increasing opportunity at the Carolinas Medical Center, led him to spend his sabbatical at the hospital in 1990.

"I wanted to learn about the nuts and bolts of medicine. It was really enjoyable and a life changing experience to learn about surgery, watch organ transplants, see what it's like to be on call, and so on," Stell said.

CMC appointed Stell as an internal medicine faculty member, enabling students from his "Health Care Ethics" course to complete externships there and have around-the-clock access to the hospital's facilities. Throughout the semester physicians provide counseling to students, as they observe staff and complete clinical rotations.

"Students can have similar experiences to mine; they can build relationships and encounter unanticipated ethical dilemmas," Stell explained. "They see that people make mistakes, complications occur, and sometimes people are at fault."

Humanizing Medicine in the Classroom

Students apply the concepts they learn in the classroom to their externships, and discuss their experiences at CMC in the classroom.

Stell often shares stories from his work as an expert witness for criminal and civil court cases centered on professional conduct and product marketing. "Some cases involve suing a doctor, evaluating doctor behavior, or establishing boundary methods-all of which lead to important ethical questions," he said.

While teaching in Davidson's humanities program, Stell discovered that topics in medical ethics have existed since the beginning of humanity. He plumbs the depths of the subject matter in his medical ethics courses. For example, he cites court cases from the early 1900s, when women were regularly misdiagnosed with mental illnesses, to illuminate issues of gender inequality in medical ethics.

"Medical humanities is really humanities in medicine, and medicine is human distress and illness.," he said. "So in medical humanities, you consider ethical implications in the physician-patient relationship and the importance of dignity for people-their will, mind and concerns."