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Infected with Enthusiasm for Medical Humanities

Two faculty members develop a new degree program that will help enrich the future of health care.

At one point or another, virtually everyone in America is a health care consumer, but not all encounters are satisfying ones. Sometimes doctors show a poor bedside manner. On the other side of the relationship, patients may not feel able to speak up for themselves or ask questions about their worries and concerns. What if there was a way to address those situations and help make the practice of medicine more compassionate and allow patients to have well-informed allies to assist them in their times of need? 

Two faculty members from the College of Arts and Sciences are working toward making those goals realities by leading a new bachelor’s degree program in medical humanities at the university. 

Dr. Cheryl Kozina, a geneticist from the biology faculty, and Dr. Allyson Marino, from the English faculty, are excited to be launching the curriculum this academic year. The program offers students two tracks: pre-medical, and health and humanities, which is intended for students interested in careers in health-related nonprofits, policy, and other nonclinical roles. Kozina will oversee the pre-medical track, and Marino will supervise the latter.

These academic options were launched based on solid research and evidence. The number of baccalaureate-level majors, minors, concentrations, and certificates actively taught in medical humanities throughout the United States rose from 15 in the year 2000 to 85 in 2019, according to a study from Hiram College (OH) and its Center for Literature and Medicine. As technology and mechanized processes take on greater roles in dispensing health care, patients’ need for empathic human contact increases. Interestingly, the Hiram report shows that doctors who have pre-medical humanities training are more likely to consider understaffed medical practice areas, including primary care, pediatric medicine, and psychiatry as practice areas for their careers.

A committee of faculty volunteers from the College of Arts and Sciences, including Kozina, Marino, and colleagues from philosophy, theology, and humanities, began exploring this degree more than three years ago. The committee weighed additional factors to determine whether it would be worthwhile for Saint Leo to add a medical humanities curriculum. “We asked: ‘Is this feasible? Is there a need for this? Is there a hole in Florida that could be filled and could it be filled by Saint Leo?’” Kozina recalled.
In all cases, the answers were “yes.” Even though Saint Leo offers a strong biology major at University Campus that prepares future doctors, dentists, and veterinarians for professional training, there was still room for another educational option. And the committee determined an added path to a medical education would be a healthy addition to meet the persistent need for more medical professionals, including doctors, nurse practitioners, and clinically trained individuals. The pre-medical track for medical humanities majors will prepare those individuals, while some will prefer the humanities path. 

Kozina explained the pre-medical curriculum will supply the science courses needed for medical school admission while leaving room for instruction in bio ethics, medical humanities foundation courses (likely also to help with the current standardized Medical College Admission Test), and other possibilities, such as Spanish for medical practitioners. “I have seen students in the biology major who would have thrived if this program had been available,” she said of students from previous graduating classes.

She has witnessed another indication of interest at the student level, too. This happens during the semesters she teaches an elective course in cancer biology. Many families have been touched by cancer, Kozina explained, and consequently, students enrolled in the course are eager to talk and share experiences. That simply does not happen in genetics class, she has noticed. 

Marino had a parallel experience during the Spring 2019 semester, when she taught a course on literature and medicine for the first time. “All the students got personal,” she said. They got to read works, for instance, from physician-author William Carlos Williams, who is known for writing accessible poems about his working-class patients in New Jersey factory towns in the early 20th century. She is excited, too, about the possibilities of future graduates tackling problems such as disparities in health services that are dependent on race, gender, age, and economic or social class. “We need more people who can be leaders,” Marino said.

The health and humanities track takes a different curricular approach from the science-focused track. It directs majors into 18 credit hours to be chosen from courses such as psychology of aging, medical sociology, anthropology, and others to be developed, and leaves room for a minor. Marino and Kozina expect that some courses will have team teachers from differing disciplines because the subject matter is so rich: Medical history could be one example. Medical humanities students from both tracks will have opportunities to learn by completing academic projects, to take part in service-learning projects, and to seek internships. 

Eventually, the health and humanities track of the major is likely to be offered at Saint Leo education centers near hospitals and health-care hubs, Marino said. More information on the major is available from the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Interdisciplinary Studies and Experiential Learning. 

Other New Majors Offered This Fall

Saint Leo University continues to expand the degree programs at University Campus, education centers, and online. These additions were effective at the start of the academic year in August. To learn more about Saint Leo’s degree programs, visit saintleo.edu/find-your-program.

  • Bachelor and Master of Science in Software Engineering
  • Bachelor of Science in Data Science
  • Bachelor of Arts in Theatre
  • Online Bachelor of Arts in Elementary Education
  • Online Bachelor of Arts in Education Studies
  • Online Bachelor of Arts in Human Services 

Jo-Ann Johnston earned her bachelor’s degree from Syracuse University (NY) and her master’s degree from Bay Path University (MA). She joined Saint Leo University in January 2008.

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