There is a tendency today to view medicine through a strictly physiological lens.
A patient presents symptoms. A physician makes a diagnosis and attempts to treat the disease using the latest drugs or surgical procedures. Some patients get better. Others do not. Outcomes become data points. Names become irrelevant.
And, somewhere along the way, for health care workers nationwide, the work of healing becomes just another chore.
But at Creighton University, health care students, faculty and administrators understand that every diagnosis is a narrative — the lived experience of a real person. They understand that true healing means more than mitigating symptoms. It means nurturing the human spirit — for both patient and physician.
There is a looming crisis of fatigue among health care workers. In May, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an advisory on the urgent need to address health care worker burnout, which was already at crisis levels before the COVID-19 pandemic. With physician demand outpacing supply, the country could experience a shortage of between 54,000 and 139,000 physicians by 2033.
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Aided by the expertise of professionals at its clinical partner, CHI Health, Creighton has made the study of the humanities an important cornerstone of its medical curriculum in the hopes of creating well-rounded graduates who enter the workforce with the mental and spiritual tools they need to face the challenges of modern health care.
Led by the newly formed Department of Medical Humanities, the university is committed to producing health care professionals who understand the Jesuit charism of cura personalis, or “care for the whole person,” and who endeavor to build their own character as much as their medical ability.
“I think the medical humanities helps clinicians connect to the why of what we do,” says Kate McKillip, M.D., assistant professor in the School of Medicine at Creighton and a physician on the palliative care team at CHI Health Creighton University Medical Center – Bergan Mercy.
“Immersing ourselves in story, in narrative, in poetry can help us rekindle that sense of wonder.”
"We are going to need a much richer and more comprehensive understanding of what it means to be human and what it means to be ‘well’ in order to deliver the kind of care people need and deserve," says the Rev. Kevin FitzGerald, SJ, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Medical Humanities.
The department works with faculty across disciplines to offer courses such as:
- The Art of Examination, in which students study works of art to boost their powers of observation and other skills to aid in their understanding of patients.
- Death, Health and Dickens, which explores the links between social conditions and health as illustrated by the work of Charles Dickens.
McKillip also was involved in selecting readings for End of Life in a Clinical Setting, a master’s course in which students study the work of health care professionals treating patients who are dying. Part of the course, she says, deals with working with patients to develop a personal metaphor for their health care journey.
“We encourage our students to take a mindful approach and echo the patient’s language, and not force a metaphor like ‘battle’ or ‘fight,’” McKillip says.
Engaging in the humanities can also provide a mental boost for health care professionals working in the field. The key to addressing burnout, says, Robert “Bo” Dunlay, M.D., dean of the Creighton School of Medicine, is for physicians to cultivate the skills to connect with their patients at a deeply human level, both to help heal the patient and to help heal themselves.
“The key here is compassion, empathy linked with action that promotes healing,” Dunlay says. “Studies show that it takes less than a minute to show compassion and change the course of someone’s life.”
Creighton, through its Jesuit, Catholic tradition, is “in the business of character formation,” Dunlay says.
“The medical humanities are essential to that,” he says. “This curriculum we’ve developed isn’t an add-on. It’s a critical part of the foundation of everything we do. We want to be bold. And this is a bold approach to medical education.”
For more information, visit creighton.edu.