issue Fall 2020

Medicine and Humanities: The Physician as an Activist

By Jennifer Alvarez and Hector Rasgado-Flores, PhD

Through the Microscope is a reoccurring Helix column that poses an issue to our community of experts. We asked Jennifer Alvarez and Dr. Hector Rasgado-Flores to address how the humanities are crucial to teaching and learning around the practice of medicine, health care and research.

In Western civilization, modern medicine has embraced the concept that diseases originate from physicochemical, biochemical and sometimes genetically derived cellular physiological imbalances and malfunctions. This has led physicians to treat their patients as a disease and their ailments from a purely scientific approach. Namely, to propose a hypothesis (diagnosis); perform an experiment (treatment); reach conclusions; and, depending on the results, either confirm or modify the hypothesis and treatment.

Thus, humanities and social sciences are necessary tools that enable physicians to enhance their understanding of the human condition

While this approach has steered remarkable progress in the treatment and cure of numerous diseases, it has been insufficient to produce healthy individuals in large groups of the population. In the United States, for example, a country that far outspends the rest of the world in medical expenses, 58% of the population is overweight; 11% is diabetic; suicide rates steadily increase; and life expectancy is lower and the infant mortality rate is higher than all other so-called developed countries. If the goal of medicine is to produce healthy individuals in the whole of the population, not just those who can afford expensive insurance and treatments, shouldn’t it be a physician’s concern that such large groups of the population are sick and the U.S. health system is inefficient?

In the last few years, it has become apparent that critical factors in the patient’s health have been neglected using reductionism in medicine. Namely, the patient is an individual with a culture and life experiences that play critical roles in determining their health. This has led to the development of the notion that social determinants of health reveal the dire role that poverty and social deprivation play on the patient’s health.

Thus, humanities and social sciences are necessary tools that enable physicians to enhance their understanding of the human condition and treat their patients as a biopsychosocial organism — yes, as actual human beings. In consequence, the therapeutic process should be a concerted, holistically informed action between the physician and patient toward reaching health, and physicians should be keenly aware of, educate the general population about and denounce conditions that impact a patient’s health, such as injustice and structural racism.

Jennifer Alvarez, CMS ’22, earned an MS degree at the University of Illinois–Chicago. Hector Rasgado-Flores, PhD, is director of Diversity, Outreach and Success at RFU and a professor with the departments of Foundational Sciences and Humanities, Physiology and Biophysics, and Interprofessional Healthcare Studies.