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Humanities in Medicine

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Students applying to medical school need a strong science background, but a humanities major can be an asset

​​

​Nana Ohemaa Asante​

Biological sciences, chemistry and human physiology are all common majors for students who plan to one day apply to medical school. English, astronomy and communications? Not nearly as common — but perhaps just as valuable.

All pre-med students at the University of Delaware take several courses in the humanities throughout their undergraduate years, but some choose to major in a field that at the surface level might not seem relevant to a future career in medicine.

Nana Ohemaa Asante, who graduated with a bachelor of arts in 2021 and a master of public health in December 2022, majored in English as an undergrad. She viewed English as a way to learn how to communicate effectively, help her process research more easily, and connect with her patients and help them understand complicated medical terminology.

“I think medicine should always be patient-centered,” said Asante, who plans to apply to medical school in the near future. “Science is a very important aspect, but the humanities keep you connected to the patient as a whole entire person, and not just a body of systems and organs.”

For a UD student, there are two main pathways to medical school. The Medical Scholars Program is an early admissions dual-track premedical eight-year academic program in partnership with three medical schools: Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University, Rowan-Virtua School of Osteopathic Medicine, and Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. Students can also go through the Health Professions Evaluation Committee (HPEC), which supports UD students who are preparing to apply to medical, dental, optometry or podiatry school.​

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​Ari August​

Alternatively, students can take prerequisites for medical school — typically two semesters of general chemistry, two semesters of organic chemistry, two semesters of physics, two semesters of biology and a semester of biochemistry — and apply to medical school on their own.

Students who go through the Medical Scholars Program are required to major in liberal studies, which allows them to explore the humanities related to medicine, and many students will add a second major. Most often, that second major is a traditional pre-med field such as biology or chemistry, but Saskia Richter, director of the Medical Scholars Program and assistant professor of kinesiology and applied physiology, reminds students that as long as they’re taking the proper prerequisites, they can major in anything they want.

“Studying something you’re passionate about is what makes you a human,” Richter said. “When you're going to your med school interviews, you can actually talk about your experiences outside of the chemistry lab. You can show that you understand the human experience and that you can actually connect with people on a different level.”​

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​Carter O’Brien​

As a third-year medical student at Sidney Kimmel Medical College, Ari August, who graduated in 2021 and majored in biological sciences and liberal studies, found her science courses to be just as valuable as the humanities.

“I think that medicine is a very intimate and beautiful thing,” August said. “There's so many different ways that I think the humanities prepare someone for medicine, and so getting to take that and all the science that we've learned through all of the years and years of education, and then using that to guide someone's treatment and improve their understanding of their own body is something that's just really special.”

Carter O’Brien, who graduated in 2023, used his time as an undergraduate student to take the classes needed to apply to medical school but also to study something he’s passionate about — astronomy.

“I always had a curiosity of astronomy, and if I go to medical school, I'll never get the chance to study it in depth ever again,” said O’Brien, who is taking a gap year while he applies to medical schools and works as an EMT for Saint Francis Hospital in Wilmington. “It definitely made me into a stronger student. Physics forces you to start with what you know and break things down and work step by step to solve a problem, which I think is a super valuable skill to have, in general and in medicine.”​

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​Cullen Kisner​

​​Cullen Kisner, a 2022 graduate who majored in biological sciences, Spanish studies and liberal studies, recently finished her first year at Sidney Kimmel Medical College. While her Spanish studies and liberal studies degrees don’t initially seem directly applicable to medical school, she said her coursework in those subject areas gave her skills that she needs to be successful, including the ability to analyze a piece of text critically and approach problems with a wider perspective.

“You're not just looking at a problem as something you need to fix in a medical sense, but you’re looking at it from different lenses,” she said. “There are so many factors that affect wellness — home life, job security, access to healthy food — and it’s really important to look at not just patients’ medical care, but also what happens when they leave the hospital and how they can support themselves and stay healthy. Having that humanities experience really primes you to look at things from that lens and look at what other factors might be affecting their wellness other than just their medical condition.”

Caroline Tillman, the academic program coordinator for UD’s Center for Health Profession Studies, agreed that understanding people’s different backgrounds is critical in the field of medicine.​

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​Josephine Oei​

"Being able to make sure that when you are meeting with patients, you are very aware of the different backgrounds that your patients are coming in with, and what their lived experiences might have entailed, is really important,” she said. “So just making sure that you have a broadened perspective outside of the chemistry or bio classrooms is going to be really beneficial.”

Josephine Oei, who graduated in 2023 and double majored in biological sciences and communication, knew she wanted to study something that would be helpful in patient management. Her background in communication, she said, has been beneficial in her job working at the front desk of a dental office in Wilmington.

“I remind myself every day that I’m so grateful I majored in communications to have been able to have the emotional capacity to do the things I do,” said Oei, who is taking a gap year while she applies to dental school. “It's already been something that's come to fruition, so I can only imagine that growing in dental school and in my own personal life and beyond.”​

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​Ngozi Ikpeama​

Ngozi Ikpeama graduated in 2023 and majored in nutrition and medical sciences. That major, she said, is not very common for pre-med students but is extremely relevant to medicine and health.

“I think a lot of the time people will major in general sciences like bio or chem, or they might do a liberal arts kind of major if that's really where their interest lies," she said. “I think a lot of people forget about nutrition, but what I've learned is that we really shouldn't. It's really so important. Food is medicine.”

Asante, the English major, said it’s important to always remember that patients are human beings and to recognize that empathy and compassion can go a long way in medical care.

“Humanities reminds you of one of the most important aspects of medicine — that you are at all times communicating with a human,” she said. “So if humanities is something you’re interested in — whether it's history, English, anthropology — there is a space for you in medicine. Medicine needs people who are very whole-person-oriented.”​

Article by Amy Wolf 

Photos by Evan Krape, iStock and courtesy of Nana Asante, Ari August, Carter O’Brien, Cullen Kisner and Josephine Oei 

​​​July 11, 2023​

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