WSU’s HealthHum intertwines health care and humanities 

  • WSU's HealthHum initiative reshapes health care education by integrating humanities into biomedical studies.
  • The organization emphasizes the pivotal role of interdisciplinary teams in decision-making for improved patient outcomes.
  • HealthHum's mission is to foster a more compassionate health care system by considering holistic perspectives beyond traditional biomedical approaches.

Wichita State University is not just reshaping downtown Wichita with the Wichita Biomedical Campus; it’s redefining health care education by harnessing the dynamic interplay between health care and the humanities. 

WSU’s new Academic Center for Biomedical and Health Humanities, or HealthHum as it’s been monikered, aims to increase the visibility of a wide range of research and teaching in areas related to health care and humanities beyond the traditional health professions. 

Dr. Susan Castro, director of HealthHum, said putting a sociologist or a philosopher in the room when big decisions are being made can change the trajectory of care and improve the outcomes of medical research.  

“When you're thinking about the kinds of problems that happen — like poor outcomes with patient compliance or affordability — a lot of those problems are a result of a decision you made months earlier. And once you get to the conclusion of your research, maybe your solution doesn’t work for disabled people or you’re going to alienate women,” said Castro, an associate professor of philosophy at WSU. “Whereas, if you'd had an ethicist or librarian or historian on the team, they might have offered insight that would have helped you avoid the mistake.” 

The librarian 

You might be thinking: How can a librarian help improve medical care? Associate professor Aaron Bowen, who serves as an instruction and research services librarian for the University Libraries and is a member of HealthHum, gave this example:  

“In 1994, researchers at Johns Hopkins University were conducting a clinical trial that saw one of its participants die from the pharmaceutical they were trialing,” Bowen said.  

During the investigation, Bowen said, it was discovered that the primary investigator had used a medical database that contained information dating back to 1966, but research done between 1953 and 1962 had uncovered reports of pulmonary toxicity. Had a librarian been involved in the research, this information would likely have been uncovered before the treatment was tested on a human.  

“Naturally, the medical library world was vocal about the fact that their members can help with this type of challenge and should have been asked to help,” Bowen said.  

The Johns Hopkins tragedy highlights the need to ensure that background research informing any project, particularly in the health sciences, is as thorough and complete as possible.  

“In my own research, I draw on my ability to trace an idea back to its source regularly, often pairing material dating back decades alongside contemporary sources to create a comprehensive picture of the idea’s development,” Bowen said. “My research accordingly receives a full grounding in the ideas I cite in order to deliver as persuasive an argument as I can craft.” 

The philosopher  

Castro, whose field of research includes medical ethics, said that although there have been significant strides in medical research and patient care in the past century, not enough focus has been placed upon the essence of being human.  

“A key aspect of the significant scientific transformation we’ve seen in the past century has been the professionalization of medicine, particularly with a strong emphasis on a molecular-level understanding of biology and health,” she said. “Many individuals have expressed discontent with this shift, feeling unheard and reduced to mere molecular entities rather than being treated as whole persons. This is one way the concept of health humanities comes into play.” 

HealthHum aims to support a more humane approach to medicine, benefiting both patients and providers. 

“It emphasizes the importance of considering the complete picture, beyond the confines of cells, organs and biological systems. By doing so, we can better address the diverse human needs and interests, fostering a more comprehensive and compassionate health care system,” Castro said.  

To give a more contemporary example of how philosophy can help, Castro said: “One of the developments in philosophy that may specifically benefit both providers and patients is recent work on relational autonomy. When relational autonomy frameworks are used to implement informed consent, we’re better able to properly support the patient’s decision-making as members of families and social networks in times of trauma. Consent is a dynamic, diachronic, complex, social agreement.” 

The linguist 

This wholistic focus on health care includes understanding a patient’s culture and community.  

“Clinicians need to know how to interact with patients for optimal communication,” said HealthHum Codirector Dr. Rachel Showstack, an applied linguist and Wichita State associate professor of Spanish. “This means that they need to ensure that they listen to patients’ perspectives and experiences and understand that the cultural frames through which patients perceive their experiences may differ from the normative biomedical perspectives of our health care system.”  

Showstack said a substantial portion of health outcomes are shaped by the environmental factors in which individuals are born, live, work and play. These crucial elements are commonly referred to as the social determinants of health, which are intertwined with the humanities. 

“In sum, health care education needs to include the humanities because health care is about people, not just about bodies and biomedical processes,” she said.  

To address linguistic and cultural barriers, Showstack founded Alce su Voz, which translates to “speak out.” The mission of Alce Su Voz, according to its website, “is to improve health equity for Spanish speakers and speakers of indigenous languages in Kansas.” 

“Linguists have a unique understanding of the nuances of communication that need to be taken into consideration in conversations about language access,” she said. “Language education and medical interpreter training are also key components of improving healthcare access and health equity. For our state to provide optimal care for all Kansans, strategies for workforce development need to be developed in collaboration with linguists who specialize in the field of language education for specific purposes.”  

The psychologist 

Though recent advancements in medical understanding have emphasized the importance of mental health on overall health, Dr. Brendan Clark said that understanding the social stigmas around different conditions effects both patient disclosures and well as the success of different treatments. 

“It’s important to remember that patients are always being treated in the context of a larger society,” said Clark, associate professor of psychology and director of Wichita State’s Department of Psychology. “Differences in opinions on ethics, morals and narratives surrounding illness all affect how patients interpret and enact their plan of treatment.”   

Clark’s role in HealthHum focuses on building relationships with community partners.  

“There will be a lot of changes to health care in Kansas and especially the Wichita area in the coming years, and I am excited to be a part of this. We have the opportunity to affect considerable positive change,” he said.  

The historian 

How does history factor into the landscape of modern medical advancements?  

“I think health care would certainly benefit from a greater dose of history discussion,” said Dr. George Dehner, associate professor of history and codirector of HealthHum.   

Dehner has extensively researched the history of diseases, with an emphasis on epidemics and public health organizational responses. During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, he offered context of the virus within the framework of other pandemics throughout history.  

Unfortunately, the importance of history in health care is far too often dismissed. Dehner said a science writer told him about his efforts to research the 1957 influenza pandemic and the failed vaccination campaign, which were met with disinterest from senior public health figures.  

“That attitude is quite alarming,” Dehner said. “The failed vaccination effort impacted how public health prepared for subsequent vaccination campaigns, including events related to COVID. Knowing what worked and what failed would be helpful for preparing for other epidemic events.” 

Dehner sees Wichita State’s efforts around the COVID pandemic, particularly with the Molecular Diagnostics Lab, as a research opportunity for health historians.  

“This strikes me as something that would be both something to memorialize for what was accomplished, and also as an example — with its successes and errors still fresh in the minds of people involved — that would be useful for others in the future,” he said.  

The buzz about HealthHum 

In its early stages, HealthHum currently has a couple dozen faculty affiliates, mostly from Wichita State, but the organization is looking for members and affiliates from across the region.  

“We’re interested in developing partnerships for research and talking about ways to improve education and patient care,” Castro said. 

The organization is also working to build two interdisciplinary certificates that combine health care and humanities — health humanities and biomedical humanities — both of which will make graduates more marketable, fill gaps in the workforce pipeline, and create a more meaningful and inclusive cultural understanding. For example, medical illustration is a profession that typically requires detailed artistic work and a comprehensive understanding of biology and anatomy.  

“A lot of the time, the medical images that we have are very heavily oriented toward people with light skin, and that can be a real problem in training medical professionals and having them exercise good observational skills and good judgment,” Castro said. “Getting more diversity in some of these image collections and illustrations is really important when we’re training health care professionals.”  

Overall, HealthHum aims to reintroduce a more humane and effective approach to medicine, benefiting both patients and providers, emphasizing the importance of considering the complete picture, beyond the confines of cells, organs and biological systems.  

“By doing so, we can better address the diverse human needs and interests, fostering a more comprehensive and compassionate health care system,” Castro said. 

About Wichita State University

Wichita State University is Kansas' only urban public research university, enrolling more than 23,000 students between its main campus and WSU Tech, including students from every state in the U.S. and more than 100 countries. Wichita State and WSU Tech are recognized for being student centered and innovation driven.

Located in the largest city in the state with one of the highest concentrations in the United States of jobs involving science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), Wichita State University provides uniquely distinctive and innovative pathways of applied learning, applied research and career opportunities for all of our students.

The Innovation Campus, which is a physical extension of the Wichita State University main campus, is one of the nation’s largest and fastest-growing research/innovation parks, encompassing over 120 acres and is home to a number of global companies and organizations.

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