More Pre-Med Students Opting for Health Humanities Programs

Health humanities programs for undergraduates have quadrupled since 2000. For pre-med students, they can offer insight about the social and cultural contexts of health care.
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With an eye toward applying to medical school, Trucian Ostheimer opted for the biomedical humanities major at Hiram College in Ohio, in 1999. In addition to standard pre-med fare such as biology, genetics, and chemistry, he also took courses in literature, communications, theatrical production, and death and dying. “In the process, I learned how to learn,” he said. “I felt comfortable jumping into any class. I truly believe that made med school easier for me than it would have been otherwise.”

Most important, Ostheimer, now 35, completed his MD at The Ohio State University College of Medicine and an ophthalmology residency at the Illinois Eye and Ear Infirmary. His undergraduate path exposed him to ideas concerning the ethical allocation of health resources and caring for the homeless and vulnerable members of society. Fittingly, he took a job in a health system located in an underserved area of Central Washington.

Ostheimer was ahead of the current curve of pre-med students flocking to baccalaureate-level health humanities programs around the country. According to a recent report from researchers at Hiram and the University of Colorado, the number of such programs has more than quadrupled since 2000, from 14 to 58, with several more programs in development. While not designed exclusively for future physicians, these programs attract a substantial number of pre-med students as well as those interested in other health-related careers.

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There are 58 programs in operation as of November 2016. Projected figures for 2017 are based on known programs currently in development.

Berry SL, Lamb EG, Jones T. Health humanities baccalaureate programs in the United States. Hiram, OH: Hiram College Center for Literature and Medicine, Hiram College; 2016.


According to the report’s coauthor Therese Jones, PhD, associate professor of medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine at the Anschutz Medical Campus in Denver, health humanities foster critical thinking, empathy, and tolerance for ambiguity—qualities in high demand for medical school and beyond. What’s more, “the programs give students the opportunity to really grapple with the importance of culture in medicine and societal responses to illness and disability,” she said.

“The humanities provide an outstanding foundation for understanding complexity and human variability, the conceptual basis for understanding medicine,” added Charles M. Wiener, MD, professor of medicine and physiology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who helped to shape the university’s recently inaugurated medicine, science, and humanities major within the Krieger School of Arts & Sciences. Students pursuing that major take core courses, such as “Death and Dying in Art, Literature, and Philosophy,” as well as courses from anthropology to science, to writing seminars that match their interests.

Fostering well-rounded physicians

The health humanities trend dovetails with recent changes in the MCAT® exam, the need for more humanistic criteria in the admissions process, and a growing recognition that medical schools need to be turning out physicians who can function effectively in teams, think on their feet, and interact well with patients from diverse backgrounds. In fact, research suggests that academically, medical students with undergraduate degrees in the humanities perform as well as pre-meds with science backgrounds but tend to have better empathy and communication skills, and a more patient-centered outlook. . 

Interest in these programs is skyrocketing. “I was quite surprised by the demand,” said Jonathan Metzl, MD, PhD, director of the Center for Medicine, Health, and Society (MHS) at Vanderbilt University. The program, which started as a small, faculty interest group in 2008, has become the second largest major on campus with over 500 declared majors in 2013.

“The humanities provide an outstanding foundation for understanding complexity and human variability, the conceptual basis for understanding medicine.”


Charles M. Wiener, MD
Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

Exposure to new ideas and ways of thinking in a student’s undergraduate education has real benefits for those heading to medical school. “It’s a great time to capture students, to help them develop different parts of the brain,” said Rishi Goyal, MD, PhD, an emergency medicine physician and director of the medicine, literature, and society (MLS) major at Columbia University. “It’s more difficult to do that in medical school. Students are already so busy, and it’s harder to convince them at that point that memorizing the Krebs cycle is not as important as holding a patient’s hand or talking to them in their same language.”

Curriculum variations

Currently, there are 16 schools offering students the opportunity to major in health humanities; 41 schools offer a minor.

Indiana University’s Medical Humanities and Health Studies program has been going strong since 2001, first as a minor and then as a major since 2012. The degree helps doctors “understand the broader context in which they work, socially, historically, and economically,” said William H. Schneider, PhD, who directs the major. “They understand better the broader background of their patients, the hospital, and the health system in which they operate.”

Students who decide on Columbia’s MLS major concentrate their studies in one of three areas: literature and medicine, medical anthropology, or history of medicine/public health. They’re required to take advanced study in a second language, with a focus on reading fluency, and complete a service-learning or independent-study project.

In the Vanderbilt program, courses are offered in such topics as racial and ethnic health disparities, medicine and literature, and war and body. Students also take classes in other departments, including neuroscience, biology, psychology, sociology, history, philosophy, and economics. “We are a melting pot for many disciplines focused on health and social justice issues,” Metzl said.

The rise in BAs in health humanities should bode well for the future of medicine, maintained David Barnes, PhD, director of the Health and Societies Major program at the University of Pennsylvania, which graduated 4 students in 2003 and 90 in 2016. According to program data between 30 and 40 percent of these graduates intend to go to medical school.

“We need a generation of health care professionals and policymakers who, rather than just giving lip service to it, start from the principles that health is a fundamentally social phenomenon and that both health care and public health policies must be crafted with that reality in mind,” Barnes said.