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BizVoice/Indiana Chamber – November/December 2017

It seems we’ve created this sort of environment in

medicine. Students engage in cutthroat competition

with their classmates to get the best grades, the highest

MCAT scores and the most lab hours, and that’s a little

alarming when we consider that many of these

individuals will care for us when we are at our sickest

and most vulnerable state.

By understanding this problem, Beckman believes

the medical humanities can begin to provide a solution.

Sure, the need to focus on biomedicine is supremely

important for our caretakers, but the human dimension

of health care is equally important.

Beckman is passionate about bridging these gaps

and has made it her life’s work to improve clinician/

patient interaction. Understanding where people come

from. Learning our shared history. Building empathy.

Through the humanities


Student preparation

Beckman has taught in the Indiana University-Purdue

University Indianapolis (IUPUI) Medical Humanities and

Health Studies program since 2008 and has served as

the director since 2016. The interdisciplinary program

aims to equip students with the ability to use the

humanities to explore the questions surrounding health

care, illness, wellness and death.

IUPUI’s program is unique in that it is an

undergraduate program housed in the School of Liberal

Arts. Most medical humanities programs are graduate

level and live in medical schools. The undergraduate

program was one of the first in its field, begun by a

diverse group of faculty more than 20 years ago.

Courses in the program range from The Culture of

Mental Illness and The Literature of Addiction to Ethics

and Policy in Organ Transplantation. All are taught

with the goal of increasing empathy – on a universal

level, but more practically in health care.

“Reading Sylvia Plath and Ken Kesey can’t give us

a complete picture or full understanding of mental illness,”

Beckman says, “but it can help us understand a bit more

of what it’s like to be diagnosed with severe depression

or what it’s like to suddenly discover your daughter or

mother or brother is severely sick. That all leads to empathy.”

Many students who opt to pursue a major, minor

or graduate certificate in

Medical Humanities plan to

have careers as clinicians: the

doctors, nurses, pharmacists

and therapists directly involved

in patient care. Others become

researchers, medical writers,

facility managers and public

health officers. The program

equips these future health care

workers to care for their patients,

deal with sometimes difficult

circumstances, understand the

history of where we’ve come

from and think about the

ethical implications of potential

medical advances.

Real life application

Recently, a student who graduated from the

program stopped by Beckman’s office to tell her a

story. He’s a fourth-year medical student who thought

he had a decent grasp on respecting patient privacy and

dignity. However, earlier in the summer he found

himself communicating with a patient’s mother in a way

that he said absolutely disrespected her.

He was distraught for a while and couldn’t

understand why it had happened, but then he reread

Perri Klass’s short story


that Beckman had

taught in one of her courses. It helped him think through

the interaction he had with the patient’s mother.

The story is about the boundaries that are inevitably

crossed when you have access to a patient. A patient’s

records. A patient’s body. A patient’s health. The student

said he thinks about the short story quite often when

he’s with patients – a story he read in the classroom.


Keira Amstutz

is president and CEO of

Indiana Humanities. This is

the final installment of a

series focusing on

individual Hoosiers who

are making a difference by

merging STEM and the

humanities. Learn more at


Healing and Humanities

Teaching Empathy in the Medical Classroom

Dr. Emily Beckman recently met with a group of medical students to discuss Albert Camus’

The Plague


During their conversation, one of the M.D./Ph.D. students in the circle likened the medical

school experience to being a gladiator in the Roman Colosseum, dueling against his fellow

students in brutal competition for the top.


Keira Amstutz

Continued on page 15

Emily Beckman believes the “humanities are more relevant now than ever” in

navigating ethical and moral health care questions.