Better health through the humanities

A new certificate teaches students historical, cultural and philosophical ways people intersect with health care and provides them a broader, more nuanced understanding of health.

November 14th 2017 | Katie Vaughn
Arts & Humanities, Students
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Last spring in a Biology and Society course, Makenzie Wydra had an aha moment. Health, she realized, isn’t just the way diseases form and how the body responds to medicines and treatments. It’s so much more, from the way notions of health have developed over time to how individuals and groups experience health care.

Makenzie Wydra. Photo by Sarah Morton, College of Letters & Science

The class, taught by assistant professor of history Nicole Nelson, explores the history of biotechnologies, ethics and how scientific developments both shape and are shaped by society. It was exciting to Wydra, who had already taken several science courses as a biology major planning a career in nursing.

“All the rest of my classes were formulas and memorization,” says Wydra, now a junior. “This introduced how things happened. It was a brief overview but it made me want to learn more.”

She is now getting that chance, as one of the first students admitted to a new certificate program that examines historical, cultural and philosophical ways people make decisions about health care.

The Health and the Humanities Certificate is a five-course, 15-credit program designed to give students a fuller and more nuanced understanding of health that complements study in the biosciences.

It stems from a problem Dija Selmi and Susan Nelson noticed a few years back while working at the Center for Pre-Health Advising, which sees about 3,000 students a year and helps about 500 apply to medical school annually. The advisors saw that students were excelling academically and gaining strong experience in labs, yet they weren’t well-versed in the bigger picture of health care.

And they weren’t ideally prepared for the Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT, which in 2015 was revamped to include sections on social and behavioral determinants of health and critical and analytical reasoning skills.

The advisors knew the university had a variety of classes on health — in departments ranging from Gender and Women’s Studies to anthropology, and history to English — and worked to bring faculty from those disciplines together to create the certificate program.

Certificate director Nicole Nelson says courses that count toward the certificate make students aware of the cultural, religious and other backgrounds that people bring with them when they interact with the health care system — and that gaining an understanding of these perspectives gives them a competitive edge.

“There’s a trend toward medical schools nationally seeking out students who are more well-rounded,” Nelson says, adding that the health care industry has increasingly focused on interpersonal aspects of the field as well.

Students begin by enrolling in one of five core classes — Biology and Society, 1950–Today; Bodies, Diseases and Healers: An Introduction to the History of Medicine; Introduction to Social Medicine; Literature and Medicine; or Exploring Religion in Sickness and Health — before they apply to the certificate.

If accepted, they then take two intermediate or upper-level courses with a focus on health and illness in social context, as well as a cultural competency class that may not necessarily focus on health and illness but that considers the experiences of at-risk or underserved populations in health care. They finish with a capstone, either through a special Health and the Humanities class or a health-focused service-learning course. 

The patient sitting in front of you is not a mere physiological problem to be solved.

Certificate advisor Julia Dauer says some students have expressed concern about how much reading and writing the program will entail, since most of their sciences courses utilize problem sets, lab experiments and multiple-choice tests.

“The modes of assessment are so different,” she says.

But those different approaches ultimately will help students be able to communicate better and use evidence in discussions and debates about health. And the certificate helps organize coursework so students can gain expertise in an area.

Judy Houck, co-director of the certificate who teaches a class about the cultural history of disease, says students are often surprised when a course piques their interest in a new way. Some like learning about how elements of health care have changed over time, while others gravitate to “thorny” issues such as how to weigh individual rights against the public’s health. 

Houck believes the certificate will prepare students to be better future doctors, nurses and pharmacists who know that “the patient sitting in front of you is not a mere physiological problem to be solved.”

But she also hopes aspiring policymakers, playwrights and other types of professionals see value in studying health in conjunction with the humanities.