The Humanities Find a Home at Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons

February 27, 2018

The humanities, long the province of Columbia’s Morningside campus, have found a second home uptown among the doctors, clinicians and scientists at Columbia University Irving Medical Campus.

The newly-created Department of Medical Humanities and Ethics will be the first program of its kind at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, encompassing narrative medicine, ethics and healthcare justice. Classes for medical students will begin in the 2018-19 academic year.

black and white photo of Rita Charon

The inaugural chair of the new department will be Dr. Rita Charon (GSAS’99), a professor of medicine who is a pioneer in using the arts and humanities to help clinicians address questions about healthcare and patients’ experiences. A Harvard-educated internist whose Ph.D. in English focused on the writings of Henry James, Charon began teaching at the medical school in 1982. She is credited with creating the field of narrative medicine, which she describes as “medicine practiced with the skills of recognizing, absorbing, interpreting, and being moved by stories of illness.”

“Dr. Charon is uniquely qualified to lead this new department,” said Dr. Lee Goldman, chief executive officer of the Irving Medical Center. “She has made the teaching of narrative studies in our university and particularly at the medical center a national and international model for how the health care professions can comprehend and heed their patients’ complex experiences of illness.”

P&S initiated its first narrative medicine course in 2000, which went on to become a required part of the school’s curriculum, and, later, a master’s program at the School of Professional Studies. Charon won a Guggenheim fellowship for her work in 2002.

“For many years, talking about literature, art, philosophy, and creativity was considered marginal in medicine,” said Charon. “There is now widespread embrace of the humanities in mainstream medical training. The humanities give us the hard-won capacities to leave our own perspective and come to understand another’s.”

The new department will address issues that can be examined with expertise from all three of the fields it encompasses. The ethics division will be led by Sandra Soo-Jin Lee, an anthropologist and bioethicist coming to Columbia from Stanford University. She investigates ethics predominantly around precision medicine, human genomics, and stem cell research, disciplines that straddle all of Columbia’s campuses. “Sandra is interested in how ordinary people as patients and citizens think about consequential advances in science,” Charon explains.

David Rothman (CC’58), professor of history and the Bernard Schoenberg Professor of Social Medicine at P&S, will lead the Division of Professionalism and Health Care Justice. Rothman’s research centers on the history of medicine, and he is also the director of the medical school’s Center for the Study of Society and Medicine. He is president of the Institute on Medicine as a Profession, a scholarly and activist organization devoted to upholding professional ideals and behaviors.

Both the center and the institute will be incorporated into the new department, which will explore policy and economic questions such as how health is tied to wealth and how corporate interests can influence the behavior of physicians.

The Division of Narrative Medicine will complete the department, and will be led by Charon. Now international in scope and influence, narrative medicine is a form of clinical practice fortified with the knowledge and methods of the humanities. “Clinicians can learn from the ways of knowing of the literary scholar, the historian, the philosopher, and the creative artist, how to listen to the complex stories of illness, how to receive all that patients and colleagues try to convey, and how to act on these stories on behalf of patients,” said Charon.

The three divisions will work with faculty across Columbia to examine health care from ethical, cultural, social, and legal perspectives with an aim towards being a meeting ground for faculty and students.

“In the humanities we learn to tolerate ambiguity and use our creativity,” said Charon. “We come, eventually, to be able to confront and comprehend what suffering patients endure and then how best to aid them in their situations. What you learn in the humanities is part of the equipment of taking care of patients. You have to be able to see the suffering in order to treat it.”