Carnegie Mellon University: Carnegie Mellon Launches New Additional Major in Health Humanities

Undergraduate students at Carnegie Mellon University who are interested in broadening their understanding of science and medicine at the intersection of culture, ethics and history can pursue a new additional major in health humanities.

Health humanities, which can be paired with any primary major at CMU, is ideal for students who plan to pursue higher education in health professions such as medical school, dental school, veterinary medical school and physician assistant school, graduate programs in biomedical research, bioinformatics and public health, as well as for those with general interests in topics like public health or history of medicine. Students will deepen their understanding of how the body works, so they know not just how diabetes occurs at the cellular level, but also how societal, political and cultural factors contribute to the development of chronic illnesses like diabetes. Students in the major will build on their understanding of scientific foundations by looking at the impact of sociocultural factors, like gender and race in health equity, and how those factors influence a person’s relationship to their health. For example, students will explore why it is difficult for people to gain access to healthcare or why they may not take their medicine.

“We really want to change the health professions,” said Andreea Ritivoi, William S. Dietrich Professor and head of the English Department. “We want them to be far more impactful globally and far more equitable. In many ways, what’s available scientifically and what makes its way into society and how we live our lives is not aligned. There is a desperate need for more physicians, pharmacists and public health officials who can help to create more equitable access to quality care.”

While this program is housed in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Jason D’Antonio, director of the CMU Health Professions Program and an assistant teaching professor in the Mellon College of Science’s Department of Biological Sciences, serves as the program director. A faculty board comprised of experts in health, humanities and social sciences from both MCS and Dietrich College helped inform the additional major and will continue to oversee the program. The faculty board includes: Bruce Armitage, Department of Chemistry; Julie Downs, Department of Social and Decision Sciences; Joel Greenhouse, Department of Statistics & Data Science; Vicki Helgeson, Department of Psychology; Alex John London, Department of Philosophy; Pearl Nielsen, Department of English; and Christopher J. Phillips, Department of History.

“The idea is to bring the humanities, ethics, philosophy, history, as well as statistics and applied psychology to the science majors who are pre-health and help them round out their understanding of what it means to be a clinician, beyond the natural sciences,” D’Antonio said. “The major will also bring a foundational understanding of the life sciences to students in the humanities and social sciences, in case they want to go into fields like public health or biostatistics.”

There are four required courses for the additional major. Students also are required to take various courses in health and the human experience; health behaviors and decisions; and reasoning and communicating about health. Elective courses include “Neurobiology of Disease,” “Social Psychology” and “Body Politics: Women and Health in America.” These courses are intended to give students a broad base in both the physiological aspects of the body, which often determine what constitutes health as opposed to disease or injury, as well the societal and ethical factors that have led to major changes in understandings of health over time.

“I want to make the life sciences — particularly biology and human physiology — accessible to every student on campus, so when they leave here, they can talk to basically anybody in the community and family members about chronic illnesses and why it’s important to maintain your physical health,” D’Antonio said. “Almost all students know someone who has a disease like diabetes, cancer or Alzheimer’s, and now they can have a better understanding of it.”

The idea for the additional major started to take shape about two years ago, when a student sought a stronger connection between health programs and the humanities at CMU.

“I sometimes refer to this as the ‘Berryhill major,'” Ritivoi said.

Berryhill McCarty graduated in 2014 with a primary major in neuroscience and an additional major in English. McCarty was studying to attend medical school, and as one of Ritivoi’s students, they had conversations on medical issues that are still relevant, like why physicians don’t understand empathy enough and how patient-doctor communication requires certain rhetorical strategies that medical students don’t learn. McCarty went on to pursue medical school at the University of Pennsylvania and continued to study topics such as ethics and narrative medicine. Now, she is completing her residency at the University of Pittsburgh in otolaryngology, focusing on the ears, nose and throat.

Through their conversations over the years, Ritivoi was inspired to create a solution for students like McCarty who want to pursue a career in health but feel like there is a missing piece to their education.

“The major situates health as a bodily aspect over our existence that takes into account culture, politics, economics, ethics, philosophy and history, and still keeps them all deeply connected to scientific advancement and scientific knowledge,” Ritivoi said.

Students interested in pursuing the additional major in health humanities are encouraged to contact D’Antonio for more information. In addition, students can explore the additional major’s topic through Dietrich College’s Grand Challenge Seminar course, Health in Unhealthy Times: Preventing, Managing, and Living with Health Risks. Taught by D’Antonio, Downs and Ritivoi, the first-year course is divided into three components: health and preventative behaviors, managing chronic health challenges and coping with disruptive health experiences. Throughout the semester, students receive an introduction to the scientific aspects of health, its political and social determinants, ethical constraints and historical roots, as well as the cultural and communicative skills required to dialogue about health, make decisions and engage empathically with others in their health stories.