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
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
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.
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 atwww.indianahumanities.org/
Healing and Humanities
Teaching Empathy in the Medical Classroom
Dr. Emily Beckman recently met with a group of medical students to discuss Albert Camus’
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 AmstutzContinued on page 15
Emily Beckman believes the “humanities are more relevant now than ever” in
navigating ethical and moral health care questions.