Humanism in Health Care

Humanism, the ideology that sparked the Renaissance, places a high value on human beings, human culture and the human experience. Today, humanism in health care reminds us that illness and recovery—and living and dying—are an integral part of the whole human experience. Every person throughout the health system—caregiver and patient alike—is first and foremost a human being.

Humanistic health professionals care about their patients as much as they care for them. They understand that compassion can be a powerful catalyst for healing.

Humanism in health care recalls us to ourselves as human beings and members of society. It is a great privilege – and a great responsibility.

What Does This Mean for Aspiring Health Care Professionals?

It means that, to succeed in this field, you need more than keen skills, a sharp mind and a steady hand. The best health professionals have heart, not just brains. They have “the human touch.”

Today’s health professions schools are looking for well-rounded, firmly grounded and genuinely humane individuals. They want a diverse student body, as varied as the patients they will serve, who know how to listen to, respect and care about other people. They are seeking applicants with a calling to the health care field, who will make a commitment to helping the underserved.

What health professions schools are striving to do is build a strong and vibrant workforce – filled with dedicated health professionals who are able to put the care in health care.

Medical Humanities

In 1967, Penn State University made history (and waves) by instituting a department of humanities in its brand new college of medicine.

Since then, other health professions schools have formed similar departments. They are centers of learning where scholars in philosophy, history, literature, ethics and the arts bring their unique perspectives to the theory, practice and social ramifications of health care. Take a look at a few examples of what medical schools are doing:

The University of Buffalo offers a page of resources related to medical humanities and bioethics. You may also want to read The Soul of a Doctor: Harvard Medical Students Face Life and Death, a collection of essays written by medical students going from the classroom to their first experiences with live patients.

Sometimes a background or interest in the arts can be just the preparation you need to become the kind of clinician who has “the human touch.” One doctor wrote about the connection between the healing professions and the arts in this essay about compassion, “’Lives there who loves his pain?’: Empathy, Creativity, and the Physician’s Obligation.”

The arts also are an invaluable creative outlet for many health professionals – enabling them to cope with and make sense of the sometimes heartwrenching experiences that come with pursuing a career in “the healing arts.”

Service and Volunteerism

The health professions can pay high salaries, and there’s nothing wrong with considering compensation levels when you’re exploring the career of your dreams. However, the best health professionals are those who understand that it is not just about the money, that there are intangible as well as tangible rewards in working in health care.

At its core, health care is about helping people in need. If you don’t place a high personal value on helping others, this may not be the field for you. The essence of health care is human service.

The Arnold P. Gold Foundation, which is dedicated to fostering humanism in medicine, defines service as “the sharing of one’s talent, time and resources with those in need; giving beyond what is required.”

Volunteering is one way to do that, and it can be a great way to gain experience in and knowledge of health care. These are a few organizations that offer volunteer opportunities: