Dr. Robert Michaelson's definition of ethics is simple but poignant.
"My definition of ethics is what people do when no one is watching you. If you are an ethical person, you live ethically," said Michaelson, who, prior to retirement was an obstetrician gynecologist (Ob/Gyn) for 37 years, past president of the medical staff at Abington Hospital and a former trustee at the hospital. "I have a 47-year-old daughter with Down Syndrome. I can't tell you that throughout her career she was treated fairly and a lot of that dealt with ethics. Ethics has been a lifelong interest of mine that I've finally had the opportunity to formulate into an educational program."
Michaelson is one of the new instructors that will be taking participants on comprehensive explorations of a variety of topics and interests in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), part of Temple University University College. His six-week course will be a case-based examination of Medical Ethics.
"My belief and ethics are that I don't think doctors should be playing God," he said. "During the course, I talk about ethical issues that I encountered during my practice."
The program additionally explores the ethics of human experimentation and clinical research, the actions of the pharmaceutical industry, the medical insurance industry, end-of-life issues, dementia, and genetic and reproduction issues, Michaelson said.
"I would like participants to understand the issues in healthcare as they relate to them and better appreciate all of the complexities of providing healthcare," he said. "I want the students to be aware of all of these things and be better prepared to navigate through their own healthcare situations."
While this is Michaelson's first time as an instructor for OLLI, it's certainly not his first experience with the program. He has been attending OLLI courses at Temple University Ambler for more than six years.
"It's been a pleasure to be a part of the Osher programs and now to contribute to them as an instructor. The program is so invigorating to me, learning about topics I've never studied before," he said. "When I was given the opportunity to teach an OLLI class, I thought there would be value in bringing my Medical Ethics lectures to the program — I had taught them previously at the Upper Dublin Library in a series that has proven very popular."
Michaelson is no stranger to teaching or incorporating ethical discussions into his lessons.
"As a clinician, I was also a teacher of medical students, residents, physician assistant students and nursing students. I was always giving lectures and always talking," he said. "When I was teaching class, I'd always bring in some ethical issues into our discussions. After I retired, I was asked to give an adult education program on medical ethics."
Michaelson additionally provided lectures to Masters of Public Health students at Arcadia University "and I would include cases regarding ethics in those discussions."
"The students may have been dealing with population health, but I wanted the students to recognize that populations are comprised of individuals that have ethical problems and issues," he said. "By teaching programs like this, I get to interact with a lot of different people, including former colleagues and former patients. I've always taught and I've always believed that the educational process has equal benefits for the learners and the providers — I get a lot of gratification from teaching."
Outside of teaching and lecturing, Michaelson is a current member of the Upper Dublin Township Human Relations Commission, the work and focus of which he's particularly proud of. The Commission's mission is to "work toward the elimination of discrimination and harassment through education, communication, mediation and community outreach."
"Becoming involved with the Human Relations Commission got me involved in a lot of issues regarding equity and helping marginalized individuals and groups. The state of Pennsylvania has no laws preventing discrimination against LGBTQ individuals — they have laws against discrimination of race or gender but not expression of gender," he said. "The township of Upper Dublin passed an ordinance saying that discrimination was unlawful for all of these classes. The Human Relations Commission was designed partially to adjudicate, but also to educate; we've increased the availability and visibility of what we do since our inception."
Thinking back, Michaelson said entering the medical profession clicked with him as soon as he entered college.
"I was always ambivalent about what I wanted to do in high school, but in college, right away I went to the pre-med advisory group and started getting my pre-med requirements. I trained at Lankenau Hospital and I grew up in Cheltenham," he said. "When I was in college, I was a pre-med volunteer in Abington Hospital's program. It was a program designed to acquaint people that may want to go into healthcare with the principles and practices that go into the profession."
Through that experience, Michaelson said, he was able to meet clinicians, hospital administrators and scientists "and that just solidified my feelings about going into medicine."
"I was very impressed with Abington. After I completed my training, I was introduced to a gentleman who was in his fifth year of practice; we hit it off and we founded our practice," he said. "The practice grew from one physician to two physicians to eventually having 14 providers — we were a busy practice delivering more than 100 babies a month. They always say that obstetrician gynecologists grow up with their patients and that's exactly what I did."
About the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute
The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Temple University is a lifelong learning academy where people 50 years and older attend classes and pursue the joy of learning without the traditional academic requirements of tests and grades. Classes are held during the day in Center City Philadelphia, Ambler, PA, and online. OLLI celebrates and enriches aging, by creating a vibrant educational community, where people 50 years and over learn, teach, and discover together.
OLLI also offers opportunities for its students to volunteer their time to help manage the program and shape its direction and activities. OLLI's volunteer leadership has committees that advise the program on policy issues, vet new instructors and evaluate current instructors, assist with fundraising, oversee a lending library for members, and organize regular day trips.