Dr. Joseph J. Fins Receives Weill Cornell Medical College Alumni Award

Dr. Joseph J. Fins (M.D. ’86), the E. William Davis, Jr., M.D. Professor of Medical Ethics, professor of medicine and chief of the Division of Medical Ethics at Weill Cornell Medicine, has been awarded the 2024 Weill Cornell Medical College Alumni Association Award of Distinction. 

The award, which was established in 1949, is presented each year to a Weill Cornell Medical College alumnus who has demonstrated exceptional achievement in education, research or patient care, and who has brought honor and acclaim to the institution. Dr. Fins received the award on May 16 at Weill Cornell Medicine’s 2024 commencement ceremony. 

“I feel incredibly honored to receive this award, given the many distinguished graduates of the Medical College, and from an institution where I have spent my entire career, as both a student and a teacher,” said Dr. Fins. “I am grateful to Weill Cornell Medicine for allowing me to pursue a career in medicine and for shaping me into the professional that I am today.” 

When Dr. Fins entered Weill Cornell Medical College in 1982, he thought he would become a psychiatrist. “I was fond of the arts and humanities, but also passionate about medical science,” he said. “I thought psychiatry was somewhere in between the two.” However, a year into his psychiatry internship at Payne Whitney, Dr. Fins switched his focus to internal medicine. He completed a residency in internal medicine and a fellowship in general internal medicine at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center in 1992. 

Dr. Fins took a somewhat circuitous route to medical ethics.  

I wanted to do medical science, as it were, and be an internist, but I also wanted to do the humanities,’’ he said. “And so medical ethics was this middle part of the Venn diagram that emerged during the course of my career.  

As chair of the Ethics Committee and director of medical ethics at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, Dr. Fins leads a team that assists clinicians, patients, and families in assessing and resolving ethical issues that arise from clinical practice. His work as a physician-ethicist also focuses on improving the care of patients with traumatic brain injury. We are on the cusp of some remarkable advances in treating disorders of consciousness,” he said. “I see this as a moral imperative to take care of some of the most vulnerable people in our society.” 

Dr. Fins has been a visiting professor at Princeton and Wesleyan and is the Solomon Center Distinguished Scholar in Medicine, Bioethics and the Law and Visiting Professor of Law at Yale Law School, where he teaches a course on civil and disability rights for people with severe brain injury. Dr. Fins has also been a consultant to the Pan American Health Organization through his work teaching bioethics in the Spanish-speaking world. He has been recognized, by royal appointment, as an Academico de Honor of the Royal National Academy of Medicine of Spain.  

He recognizes the importance of ethics in confronting the critical health issues of the day and believes the medical profession is approaching an inflection point in the relationship between artificial intelligence and ethics.  

“I think one of the key challenges in teaching medical students is how we use the technology without delegating our professionalism to the machine,’’ he said. 

The chair of the Hastings Center Board of Trustees, Dr. Fins has authored more than 500 peer-reviewed papers, book chapters, essays and books, including the 2015 “Rights Come to Mind: Brain Injury, Ethics, and the Struggle for Consciousness.” He has also received numerous honors, including the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine Patricia Price Browne Prize in Biomedical Ethics and the American College of Physicians’ Nicholas E. Davies Memorial Scholar Award for Scholarly Activities in the Humanities and History of Medicine. Dr. Fins is an elected member of the National Academy of Medicine and the Association of American Physicians, as well as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Hastings Center. He has received a Doctor of Humane Letters (honoris causa) from Wesleyan University. 

He is currently on a partial sabbatical to work on a biography of physician-humanist Dr. Lewis Thomas. 

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