The University of California’s (UC) Riverside School of Medicine includes the humanities in its required curriculum, a move the school says is helping its physicians communicate more effectively with patients from diverse communities.

The school requires that its students taking writing classes and attend lectures in the medical humanities – learning, for example, how asking the right kinds of questions can shed light on the barriers to care that a patient may be facing. And “Physicians are learning about patient care through a humanistic lens,” says Milagros Peña, dean of UC Riverside’s College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.

The humanities curriculum at the Riverside School of Medicine grew from a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to develop a health humanities program at that focused on the role of storytelling in medicine and healing. Peña, a panelist at a recent UC congressional briefing on the value of NEH funding, says the interdisciplinary grant allowed UC Riverside’s humanities scholars to collaborate with School of Medicine faculty on ways to integrate narrative into medical students’ training.

From there the collaboration grew and continues to evolve, she says – so that the medical school curriculum now includes required writing classes for first- and second-year students and mandatory seminars for all students on topics such as Narrative and Inequality. “They’re learning that being a doctor is more than just knowing biology and disease,” according to medical anthropologist Juliet McMullin, who teaches the class. “It’s the overall well-being of a patient,” McMullin said. “The kinds of questions you ask when you see a patient – it’s not just how they feel physically. It’s what’s going on in their daily lives with work, family, housing or even something as basic as transportation – one of the things that we know can be an obstacle to care.”

Photo Credit: Ross French, UC Riverside