The University of Iowa Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine’s Writing and Humanities Program gives medical students the space and time to pursue interests in the arts and humanities, as well as develop skills critical for their futures as successful physicians.

The Greek god Apollo was the god of medicine, art, poetry, and music. Following that model, physicians for centuries married the science of medicine with the arts and humanities.

“Once upon a time, physicians were expected to be well-read representatives of society. They were the artists and philosophers,” says Mgbechi Erondu, a graduate of the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine and an anesthesiology resident at Baylor College of Medicine.

The top image...

Students in the Carver College of Medicine’s Writing and Humanities Program discuss the current events, social aspects, and people of the medical field on The Short Coat Podcast—one way the program offers opportunities for students to communicate with a broader public.

An overhaul of U.S. medical education in the early 1900s established scientific knowledge as the defining attribute of the modern physician, leaving little room for the arts and humanities. However, in recent years many medical schools have been rediscovering their benefits—including helping physicians develop the capacity to listen, interpret, and communicate with patients, as well as maintain a better work-life balance.

Iowa’s Carver College of Medicine was an early adopter, developing the Writing and Humanities Program in 2001—and taking advantage of the strong writing, arts, and humanities resources already on campus. The program focuses on the humanistic and artistic dimensions of medical education and practice. It offers elective courses and arts and humanities activities for medical students; administers the Humanities Distinction Track; produces The Examined Life Journal and The Short Coat Podcast; and hosts the Examined Life Conference.

Cate Dicharry, director of the Writing and Humanities Program, says the skills students gain directly impact their work as physicians, helping them to absorb and interpret what their patients are experiencing.

“They go into an exam room as a whole person with stories, and they interact with someone who has a whole lifetime of stories and experiences,” Dicharry says. “Assumptions will be made about each other, and they have to find ways to communicate. Thinking through the elements of storytelling—whether it’s through literature or creative writing—is one way to make those tools available and to practice them.”

Mgbechi Erondu, a graduate of the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine and an anesthesiology resident at Baylor College of Medicine
Mgbechi Erondu, a graduate of the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine and an anesthesiology resident at Baylor College of Medicine, says her participation in the Writing and Humanities Program made her a unique candidate on the interview trail. “I was rarely asked about anything medical,” Erondu says. “I was asked about my writing, my novel, my MFA. They were interested in my point of view. I think it sets you apart from the average applicant.”

Erondu, who is from Iowa City and graduated with an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2016 and an MD from the Carver College of Medicine in 2017, agrees.

“How do you listen, really listen, to a patient?” Erondu says. “The best way to do that, I think, is to be a good reader. And not just reading textbooks, but fiction. Because when you read fiction, you’re forced to imagine things that are in another world. And how you interpret it might be different from how the author intended, and that’s OK. You don’t have to worry so much about the right answer. Being willing to be wrong or surprised, those are all things that are developed in people who are invested in the humanities.”

Effective communication with patients also is a skill that med students are expected to develop, but isn’t always addressed in a formal medical school curriculum. The Short Coat Podcast—in which med students discuss the current events, social aspects, and people of the medical field—offers one opportunity for students to communicate with a broader public.

Writing and Humanities Program, Carver College of Medicine

The Carver College of Medicine’s Writing and Humanities Program focuses on the humanistic and artistic dimensions of medical education. The program offers elective courses and activities for medical students that illuminate the unique roles writing, humanities, and fine and performing arts can play in medical education, patient care, and professional development. Staff members also review any form of writing a student might need a second set of eyes on, including creative writing, scholarship, personal statements, CVs, research papers, abstracts, et cetera.

“The podcast lets them practice talking about concepts they are learning,” says David Etler, administrative services coordinator in the College of Medicine and co-host of the podcast. “I act as the naïve listener because that’s what I am. They are forced to avoid jargon when explaining things to me. It’s important not to speak to people in the wrong language.”

Third- and fourth-year students also can take an improv class taught through the Department of Theatre Arts to help them learn to think on their feet and prepare for the unexpected conversations they’ll face every day in their practice.

Erondu, who worked on a novel while in the Humanities Distinction Track, says she always knew writing was essential to who she was. And while she says she didn’t participate in the Writing and Humanities Program to pad her résumé, she found that it made her a unique candidate on the interview trail.

“I was rarely asked about anything medical,” Erondu says. “I was asked about my writing, my novel, my MFA. They were interested in my point of view. I think it sets you apart from the average applicant.”

While the program prepares medical students for their professional lives, it also impacts their personal lives. High-quality health care requires the well-being and health of medical professionals, yet the National Academy of Medicine estimates that half of American physicians experience burnout.

Claire Castaneda, a third-year medical student from Dubuque, Iowa, says participating in the Writing and Humanities Program through The Short Coat Podcast and working on a collection of short stories as part of the Humanities Distinction Track have proven invaluable to her medical school experience.

“If med school was my whole life all the time, I would burn out. It would be a supernova,” Castaneda says. “As much as I love medicine, you can love a lot of things but also not love them every day.”

University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine student Claire Castaneda

Claire Castaneda, a third-year medical student from Dubuque, Iowa, says participating in the Writing and Humanities Program through The Short Coat Podcast and working on a collection of short stories as part of the Humanities Distinction Track have proven invaluable to her medical school experience.

Medical professionals are entrusted with the lives of others, and they often bear witness to the toll that disease and trauma take on people. Castaneda says it’s helpful to have an outlet in which to express herself.

“Sometimes you have so much coming at you and there are things, such as death and tragedy, that you know other people don’t often see,” Castaneda says. “You need somewhere to put it all sometimes.”

Many students pursued interests in writing, the arts, or humanities before they decided to go to medical school.

“We want students to know that you don’t have to give up your interests to become a physician,” Etler says. “In fact, you absolutely should not do that. I always say you’ll be boring if you do that. And exhausted.”

Dicharry says she knows it can be hard to fit in such activities around the demands of med school, but the Writing and Humanities Program can help.

“That’s why the distinction track is so great,” Dicharry says. “It gives students a formal structure in which to pursue those interests.”

Students currently pursuing the Humanities Distinction Track are working on a variety of projects: visual artists working on painting projects, fiction writers and poets putting together manuscripts, a musician composing a concept album rooted in his medical studies, and a student who is taking a more academic approach by looking at health care access for young women who are addicted to opioids.

As more medical schools begin to put a focus on the arts and humanities, Iowa stands out in that its program is run not by a medical professional, but a writer. Erondu and Castaneda both say that when deciding where to go to medical school, they looked for one that put an emphasis on the arts and humanities.

University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine art club participants
The Carver College of Medicine's Writing and Humanities Program offers elective courses and arts and humanities activities for medical students. “So many of my classmates have gifts and talents they want to nurture,” says med student Claire Castaneda. “I’ve met a few who are beautiful artists and others who try their hand at poetry and absolutely crush it. It’s refreshing to see people still taking those risks because I think it can sometimes be hard in this environment to try something new and creative.”
Humanities Distinction Track

The Carver College of Medicine Humanities Distinction Track promotes both students’ growth as professionals and the value of humanism in medicine. In addition to their medical studies, participants pursue an area of interest within a broad range of disciplines, including creative writing, literature, philosophy, religion, visual arts, music, history, the social sciences, and public policy.

“Not a lot of medical schools have an opportunity like you find at Iowa,” Erondu says. “Even if you’re not necessarily interested in these programs, the fact that they are offered is really important. It speaks to the culture of a place.”

Castaneda says she appreciates the time and space given to explore non-medical interests.

“So many of my classmates have gifts and talents they want to nurture,” Castaneda says. “I’ve met a few who are beautiful artists and others who try their hand at poetry and absolutely crush it. It’s refreshing to see people still taking those risks because I think it can sometimes be hard in this environment to try something new and creative. It’s good to know people are willing to push their comfort zones and continue expanding who they think they are, and not just say, ‘I’m this now and only this.’”

Erondu agrees.

“Just like in the way they tell you to be open to different medical specialties, I feel everyone should be open to different ways of thinking and learning from unexpected places, like a work of fiction, a painting, a poem.”

While participation in any Writing and Humanities Program class or activity is voluntary, Dicharry hopes that soon every medical student will interact with elements of it at least once during their time at Iowa. She works with faculty to add elements of writing and humanities to required classes.

“This program speaks to students’ humanity and not just their clinical side,” Dicharry says. “There’s a reason why a lot of med schools are moving in this direction, not just as an option, but as a requirement. The argument is that some of these elements are more necessary in a STEM program because they’re not necessarily part of the formal curriculum. But med students are still human beings, and they’re going to be engaged in vulnerable, high-stakes experiences. They’re going to go out and work on human bodies, and there’s more to it than what they learn in an anatomy lab.”

Produced by the University of Iowa Office of Strategic Communication
Story
Emily Nelson
Photography
Justin Torner and Susan McClellen