New Health Humanities Degree Program

Paul Kalanithi’s book, When Breath Becomes Air, is a true story of Kalanithi, a graduate of Stanford’s M.A. in English program who also earned an MPhil in the history and philosophy of medicine from the University of Cambridge before going on to graduate from Yale Medical School. He eventually returned to Stanford for a neurosurgical residency. In 2013, during his residency, he was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic lung cancer and died in 2015. In telling his story, Kalanithi states, “The physician’s duty is not to stave off death or return patients to their old lives, but to take into our arms a patient and family whose lives have disintegrated and work until they can stand back up and face, and make sense of, their own existence.”

As in any other discipline, but perhaps more so in health and health related areas, we need professionals who can integrate the human condition with the work they do as physicians, health care providers, and health care professionals.  The American Academy of the Arts and Sciences, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, National Research Council, and the National Science Foundation have recommended integrated approaches that overlay the skills of humanists, social scientists, physical and biological scientists, and engineers to solve the global health challenges of the 21st century.

As educators we have an obligation to create pathways for such integration. For this reason, the recently approved B.A. in Health Humanities at MU, a collaboration between the College of Arts and Science (CAS) and the College of Health Sciences (CHS), is an important achievement for a land grant institution, as we integrate our learning environment with what the community needs.

What is health humanities?

The health humanities is a …field concerned with understanding the human condition of health and illness in order to create knowledgeable and sensitive health care providers, patients, and family caregivers.  As a field the health humanities draws on the methodologies of the humanities, fine arts and social sciences to provide insight, understanding, and meaning to people facing illness including professional care providers, lay care providers, patients, policy-makers and others concerned with the suffering of humans. 

Research Methods in Health Humanities, Edited by Craig M. Klugman and Erin Gentry Lamb (2019)

What are career paths from this degree?

As noted in our proposal that was approved by the UM System Board of Curators this summer, over the last 20 years, the number of programs in medical humanities (closely related to health humanities) has grown from 15 to 102.  As the proposal cites, research has documented an increase in diagnostic accuracy and improved pharmacological interventions that result from increased empathy, which is emphasized in health humanities programs. Such programs have also increased patient compliance with treatments and self-advocacy by patients, all of which promote improved patient outcomes.[1] All of this reduces burnout and increases well-being among doctors and health professionals.[2]

The American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) has urged medical schools to integrate the arts and humanities into their curricula.  For this reason, and since 2020, over half of AAU medical schools have incorporated some form of medical humanities training. The B.A. in Health Humanities offers these skills to undergraduate students who become competitive for medical school, and for roles in health care (including marketing, sales, medical research, consulting and insurance) and civic engagement.  The program is attractive to pre-med students or to anyone preparing for a career in public health, heath education, social work, health care administration and patient advocacy.

Why is MU uniquely positioned to offer this degree? 

Mizzou offers a range of programs in the humanities and health sciences.  Our “health assets” are significant and are found across the university in multiple colleges – plant science and animal science; biological and biomedical sciences; veterinary science; nursing; medicine; occupational therapy and physical therapy; health psychology; health sciences; rural health initiatives led by Extension; and all of the work of our faculty at NextGen, in MU’s Research Reactor (MURR), and in our hospitals and health system.  Our efforts to commercialize research via linkups with pharma companies is significant.  Equally important is the work done by researchers who study disparities in health outcomes in underserved populations. Taken together, the idea of bench to bedside research comes alive at MU, benefitting patients via providers, providers via research, and research via comprehensive expertise across the campus.  And, of course, MU’s College of Arts and Science has always offered strong programs in the arts and humanities that will be critical to this new degree.

Finally, employment in the Health Care and Social Assistance category which stands at over 448,000 in 2022 and is the largest among all other sectors, is expected to add over 8,000 jobs by 2024, and 41,000 jobs by 2030. 

For all these reasons the new BA in Health Humanities holds significant promise for MU and the state of Missouri.

[1] Mercer SW, Reyn, olds WJ. Empathy and the quality of care. Br J Gen Prac 2002; 52: S9– S13; Mercer SW, Watt GCM, Reilly D. Empathy is important for enablement. BMJ 2001; 322: 865. See also Stelfox, H. T. Gandhi, T.K., Orav, E.J., & Gustavson, M.L. (2005). The relation of patient satisfaction with complaints against physicians and malpractice lawsuits. The American Journal of Medicine, 118(10), 1126-1133.

[2] See Hedy S. Wald, Jonathan McFarland & Irina Markovina (2019) Medical humanities in medical education and practice, Medical Teacher, 41:5, 492-496, DOI: 10.1080/0142159X.2018.1497151. See also Mangione S, Chakraborti C, Staltari G, Harrison R, Tunkel AR, Liou KT, Cerceo E, Voeller M, Bedwell WL, Fletcher K, Kahn MJ. Medical Students’ Exposure to the Humanities Correlates with Positive Personal Qualities and Reduced Burnout: A Multi-Institutional U.S. Survey. J Gen Intern Med. 2018 May;33(5):628-634. doi: 10.1007/s11606-017-4275-8. Epub 2018 Jan 29. PMID: 29380213; PMCID: PMC5910341.