Published March 17, 2014
Through innovative curricula and programs developed by the University at Buffalo’s Center for Medical Humanities, medical students will have opportunities to explore issues related to humanism, an approach to care that emphasizes compassionate, empathic doctor-patient relationships.
“The dual strands of science and art in medicine have been recognized since the time of Hippocrates,” says center director Linda F. Pessar, MD, professor emerita of psychiatry. “You need both components to make good doctors.”
Center offerings will engage students from the start in humanistic learning, discussion and reflection.
The human dimension of medicine — encompassing issues of sociology, anthropology, ethics and professionalism — will be integrated into coursework and offered via optional enrichment sessions.
Students will learn through interdisciplinary experiences incorporating the humanities, social sciences and art, including film and literature.
“Practice is more than molecules and science,” Pessar says. The goal is to “present a broad palette early in medical training.”
Beginning this fall, first-year students in several courses will consider humanistic as well as diagnostic questions via problem-based learning cases.
Specific case studies, for example, may center on how a child’s illness affects the family or may focus on when to begin palliative care for an older patient with serious illness and poor treatment options.
Thought-provoking reading material will illuminate the patient experience and point of view.
“These profound questions need to be reinforced in the first two years, or preclinical stage, of medical school,” Pessar notes.
About twice monthly, students in all years will be invited to participate in lectures, readings or creative or reflective activities.
For example, a slide presentation on interpretations of the nude throughout history may coincide with gross anatomy classes.
Students will learn “we make judgments on bodies based on our own cultural lenses,” Pessar says.
Currently, first- and second-year students are using techniques of narrative medicine to reflect on service learning.
“Narrative medicine attempts to capture the experience of illness and its treatment, including the psychological and interpersonal aspects of the doctor-patient relationship,” Pessar explains. “This is done through the analysis and discussion of writings by patients and doctors.”
In 2014-15, during their Clinical Practice of Medicine course, second-year medical students will observe artwork in local galleries to build skills they need to examine patients carefully.
“Over time, they see more, and only then are they allowed to describe or assess the whole,” Pessar explains.
This process mirrors what takes place when a physician develops a differential diagnosis, which involves distinguishing a disease or condition from others presenting with similar signs and symptoms. New trainees “tend to see one thing and jump to a diagnosis without taking in all relevant detail,” she says.
The center, established last fall, is collaborating with the Gold Humanism Society, UB’s Anderson Gallery, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the Burchfield Penney Art Center and Just Buffalo Literary Center.
These community collaborations have been “just wonderful,” notes Pessar. “It’s so exciting to see wonderful responses within and without the medical school, university and collaborating entities in the arts.”
“It’s an endeavor whose time has come.”
Pessar describes the center as “an intellectual and interpersonal space,” not a physical or geographic entity.
“It provides a central umbrella or home for faculty to develop and coordinate more robust offerings to enhance medical education,” she says.
Faculty, she adds, have enthusiastically embraced the center’s goals. “I’m delighted by faculty support,” she says. “It’s been quite overwhelming.”
Participating faculty members come from various disciplines throughout UB.
Many, including Pessar, have routinely incorporated humanistic instruction or topics into their courses. Pessar has a long-standing interest in narrative medicine and has used literature and art to help teach psychiatry.
Like Pessar, several members of the center’s advisory committee have been recognized for teaching excellence, humanism in medicine or both.
The committee, listed below, also includes three medical students and a resident.
Linda F. Pessar, MD, director and professor of psychiatry emerita
Richard Cowan, MD, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and clinical associate professor of neurology
Murray J. Ettinger, PhD, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of biochemistry
Jack P. Freer, MD, professor of medicine; director of clinical research ethics, UB Clinical and Translational Science Institute; associate director of the UB Center for Clinical Ethics and Humanities in Health Care
Mary Gallo, medical student (Class of 2017)
Reid R. Heffner, MD, professor of pathology and anatomical sciences
Peter S. Martin, MD, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry
Archana Mishra, MD, clinical associate professor of medicine in the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine
Colleen A. Nugent, MD, medical resident; developed a Humanism in Residency curriculum for the pediatric residency program
Nina Paroff, medical student (Class of 2017)
Pamela D. Reed, MD, assistant professor of medicine
William Stendardi, medical student (Class of 2016)
Linda Wild, MD, adjunct associate professor and clinical associate professor emeritus of pathology and anatomical sciences
James Bono, PhD, associate professor and chair of history; expert in the history of medicine
David Herzberg, PhD, associate professor of history; expert in the history of health and illness
Michael Rembis, PhD, assistant professor of history and director, UB Center for Disability Studies
Susan L. Smith, MD, postdoctoral associate in philosophy, whose specialization areas include bioethics and research ethics