Minding the Gap: One Institution’s Strategy for Infusing Health Humanities into Multiple Academic Programs across a Graduate Health Science University

Part One of a Two-Part Blog Series

by Lisa Kerr, PhD; Dusti Annan-Coultas, EdD; Jane Ariail, PhD; Jennifer Bailey, MEd; Caroline DeLongchamps; Cindy Dodds, PT, PhD, PCS; Brooke Fox, MS, CA; Jeanne G. Hill, MD; Kimberly Kascak, MEd; Steve Kubalak, PhD; Michael Madson, PhD; Ben Reynolds, PhD; Bob Sade, MD; Tabitha Samuel, MLIS; Thomas G. Smith, PhD.

Corresponding author: Lisa Kerr <kerli@musc.edu>, Medical University of South Carolina

The mission of the Office of Humanities at the Medical University of South Carolina is to promote teaching, scholarship, and research in the health humanities. Director of the Office, Lisa Kerr, partners with multiple groups and individuals across the institution to accomplish these goals.


Over half of United States medical schools include health humanities content in their curricula, but humanities education for students in other academic health science programs are few and far between. The Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) is working to address this gap identified by the National Organization for the Arts in Health (NOAH) in 2017. For many years, various MUSC faculty members and groups have infused health humanities programming into our six colleges: dental medicine, graduate studies, health professions (i.e., allied health), medicine, nursing, and pharmacy. Seeing the need for a more systematic approach, the Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost created an Office of Humanities in 2017. The director of the Office of Humanities established a mission to promote teaching, scholarship, and research in the health humanities across our institution, in large part by leveraging the existing network and fostering its growth. In this two-part blog series, we’ll describe the health humanities programs at MUSC to illustrate how we’ve created broad humanities programming across the university. We hope these descriptions reflect our strategy for broadening institutional perceptions of what the health humanities are and how they contribute to health professions education and practice. For Part One of this two-part blog series, we’ll focus on the core initiatives led by our Office of Humanities. In Part Two, we’ll describe programs led by the Office’s university and community partners.


Health Humanities Class-Specific Workshops and Assignments

The Office of Humanities works to build relationships with faculty members across programs and to assess their needs for humanities content. At present, the director of the Office of Humanities offers a variety of workshops that broadly fall under the categories of health humanities or narrative medicine. Consistent themes include the importance of individual narratives to providing person-centered care; the impact of unconscious biases and assumptions; the value of being a reflective practitioner; and the role of personal, cultural, and political forces in health and health care. The goals of these sessions are to introduce the health humanities as a discipline, explain its value to students’ education and practice, and engage students in experiential learning. This method of embedding workshops has allowed the Office of Humanities to reach students in multiple programs across our institution.

Providing digital access to humanities content is another strategy we use to embed the health humanities. In 2017, the director of the Office developed a series of modules for a community based education program run by South Carolina Area Health Education Consortium (SC AHEC) designed to prepare them to work in rural and underserved areas (SC AHEC, 2019). The modules explored topics identified by SC AHEC: Interprofessional Education, Behavioral Health integration, Social Determinants of Health, Cultural Competency, Practice Transformation—Patient- and Family-Centered Care, and Current and Emerging Health Issues—Technology, Innovation, and Patient Care. For each of these topics, the Office of Humanities provided three to five activities with literature, film, television, and the visual arts. Approximately 60 students per year have the opportunity to engage with these humanities modules in the interprofessional SC AHEC program.


Humanitas: A Journal of Literature and the Arts

For 24 years, MUSC has published Humanitas, a journal of literature and the visual arts that is edited by students and accepts submissions from “anyone with an MUSC badge,” including students, faculty, staff, and volunteers. Issues include works from medical and health science students as well as pharmacy and radiology technicians; nursing, administrative, information technology, and public safety staff; and clinical and research faculty. In the spring, the journal is printed and distributed free and made available digitally on the Office of Humanities website. In recent years, the Office of Humanities and the journal’s faculty advisor have proactively sought to draw a more diverse pool of student editors. Over the last two years, the editorial board has included students from graduate studies, health professions, medicine, nursing, and pharmacy. In the coming year, we will proactively reach out to students through the Office of Student Diversity in an effort to continue increasing representation and participation across the student body.


SHARE Grants and Student Research Day

A primary goal of the Office of Humanities is to grow our network of students, teachers, scholars, and researchers. So we created the Scholars of Humanities and Arts Research and Education (SHARE) grants program to fund projects that sit at the intersection of arts, humanities, and health. Because the Office of Humanities’ primary mission is to serve students, teams that include an MUSC student from any program as an active member are strongly encouraged to apply. In the first two cycles, three student research groups from two colleges—the College of Medicine and the College of Health Professions Physical Therapy Program—were among the five groups selected to receive grants. Their projects included a “race and medicine” reading group, a visual thinking strategies (VTS) project conducted in partnership with a local art museum, and a dance therapy group for patients with Parkinson’s Disease. These students and all SHARE grant recipients are required to disseminate findings through publication or presentation.

One opportunity to share research findings occurs every fall with MUSC’s Student Research Day, which showcases the work of our students and their research collaborators. In the fall of 2018, the Office of Humanities created a “health humanities” research prize. On presentation day, judges scored the oral and poster presentations using a customized rubric, and one award was given for best overall presentation. In 2018 and 2019, both student winners were from the College of Health Professions. In the future, our goal is to continue to raise awareness of health humanities research and scholarship to encourage more MUSC students to engage in these areas of investigation.


MUSC Reads: A Common Reading Experience

The Office of Humanities instituted a “common reading” program in 2017 to provide students, faculty, and staff opportunities to discuss topics of health and health care through literary and narrative lenses. The first year of this initiative, we selected Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the novel’s first publication. Members of the MUSC community formed small reading groups, whose members received a free copy of Frankenstein. Because we’ve found scheduling to be a barrier to book club participation in the past, these groups met at a time convenient to their members for discussions. To help facilitate these discussions, an MUSC librarian/archivist created a digital library guide (LibGuide) that included discussion questions, resources, and an overview of the initiative. Small group participants were also invited to attend a large-group event featuring an interdisciplinary panel. In our second year, we selected the book Dreamland: The True Tale of the America’s Opiate Epidemic. For both years of the initiative, close to half of the over 100 participants were MUSC students, and demand for books was higher than our supply.

In the first two years, the Office of Humanities also collaborated with The Institute of Human Values in Health Care to link “MUSC Reads” to The Institute’s annual Thomas A. Pitts Memorial Lectureship in Medical Ethics. This lecture is open to any students, staff, and faculty of MUSC and draws national participation. In 2018, the topic of the lecture was “Frankenstein at 200 Years: Contemporary, Ethical, Scientific, and Social Relevance,” and in 2019, the topic was “Opioid Controversies: The Crisis—Causes and Solutions,” connecting it to Dreamland. By aligning “MUSC Reads” and the Pitts Lectureship, these two groups built interest around these topics on campus.


Stay Tuned for Part Two

While these programs represent major initiatives led by the Office of Humanities, a key strategy of our Office is to create innovative collaborations across our health system and to recognize the humanities work championed by others. Stay tuned for Part Two of this blog series, where we describe several of our partner initiatives.



National Organization for Arts in Health. (2017). Arts, health, and wellbeing America. https://thenoah.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/NOAH 2017-WhitePaper-Online  Edition.pdf. Accessed 20 August 2019.

South Carolina Area Health Education Consortium. 2019. AHEC Scholars Program. https://www.scahec.net/students/ahecscholars.html. Accessed 20 August 2019.

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