After pandemic burnout, physician finds new calling in Medical Humanities
The COVID-19 pandemic had ripped the soul out of medicine for Ingrid Berg, DO.
A family practice hospitalist in rural Wisconsin, Berg had worked tirelessly to treat a deluge of patients with the virus, only to watch many of them die within days, or worse, linger for weeks and slowly suffocate.
She had defended herself against conspiracy theorists and denialists who screamed at her in the halls of her hospital.
And her favorite part of the job — connecting personally with her patients — had been made difficult by layers and layers of PPE.
She needed something to remind her of the why of medicine. And, after a quick Google search, she found it.
Berg is now a member of the inaugural class of the Master of Arts in Medical Humanities, a new degree program in the Creighton University School of Medicine. As part of the online graduate program, students explore how healthcare is shaped by the cultural, spiritual, political and economic environment that informs daily life. Led by expert faculty across disciplines, they study literature, history, philosophy, psychology, ethics and more, all with an emphasis on personal development and professional discernment.
“My entire life has changed because of this program,” says Berg, now a year into her course of study. “The most challenging and most tender moments in practicing medicine are those steeped in discomfort and ambiguity and suffering, and a purely biomedical curriculum often doesn’t teach physicians how to address those.”
Guided by the Jesuit charism of cura personalis, or “care for the whole person,” Creighton has long endeavored to incorporate the humanities into the curricula of all its schools and colleges.
But there is, perhaps, a greater urgency for it in the medical field, which is facing a looming burnout crisis in the wake of the pandemic. In 2022, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an advisory on healthcare worker burnout. With physician demand outpacing supply, the country could experience a shortage of between 54,000 and 139,000 physicians by 2033.
Medical Humanities Helps Clinicians Connect With Patients
Exploring the humanities helps physicians reframe their profession in terms of helping their patients work through the narrative of their lives — which benefits both parties, says Kate McKillip, MD, BA’09, assistant professor in the School of Medicine and a physician on the palliative care team at CHI Health Creighton University Medical Center – Bergan Mercy.
“I think the medical humanities helps clinicians connect with the why of what we do,” she says. “Immersing ourselves in story, in narrative, in poetry, can help us rekindle the sense of wonder.”
It’s been a goal for the program from the very beginning, says the Rev. Kevin FitzGerald, SJ, PhD, PhD, chair of the Department of Medical Humanities.
“Helping healthcare professionals and others find increased fulfillment and meaning in their work that will enhance their ability to care for patients and colleagues is both what we hoped to achieve with this program and what is so urgently needed in healthcare today,” he says. “We were so fortunate to attract such amazing students in our inaugural class, and we hope that our initial success will foster a steady stream of students who will grace us with their desire to become the best healthcare professionals they can be.”
The master’s program specifically was designed to be “transformational,” says Nicole Piemonte, PhD, the Peekie Nash Carpenter Endowed Chair in Medicine and program director for the Master of Arts in Medical Humanities.
“Our purpose in the medical humanities, whether we are educating healthcare students, graduate students or practicing clinicians, is not only to educate one’s mind, but also one’s heart,” she says.
Experience Influences Approach to Medicine
The experience, Berg says, has deeply influenced her approach to medicine, opening her mind to the practice of healing beyond the physical. Once, when she learned one of her very sick patients loved the poet Mary Oliver, Berg called her husband and asked him to bring over books by Oliver from Berg’s personal library.
Doctor and patient later read a poem together.
“It was really special,” Berg says. “Often, nothing needles you or encourages you to ask anything beyond the standard questions. We ask about bowel movements and breathing and all sorts of things, but it wouldn’t hurt if we asked things like ‘What was the highlight of your day?’ only to find out it’s a poem. And it’s so easy to bring someone a poem.”
Berg was particularly moved by her experience learning more about end-of-life care through the medical humanities program. During their course of study, students engage in a two-week-long palliative care or hospice experience, working alongside physicians in a clinical setting. Last year, Berg traveled to Omaha to shadow the palliative care team at Bergan.
Working with McKillip, Berg discovered a previously unknown passion for end-of-life care.
“Areas like palliative care and hospice often get labeled as a ‘death squad,’ but it’s so much more than that,” Berg says. “I learned from Dr. McKillip that, in palliative care, we do things like conducting a ‘life review’ with our patients, helping them answer the tough questions and serving as extra support when things are complicated.”
The experience affirmed a passion for end-of-life care, reinforcing a decision she made to change careers. Berg recently moved from Wisconsin to begin a palliative care fellowship at the University of Missouri. Her dream job, she says, is working at the intersection of her two newfound passions — teaching medical humanities in an academic space and working in palliative care in a clinical setting.
“I didn’t realize that in mid-life, I could make a change like this. The mentors and professors in this program have been so generous and enthusiastic and supportive,” she says, adding, “I would just plea that more medical schools embrace the humanities. We demand so much from our learners in healthcare, it may seem at first glance unfair to ask them to do more. But a nose-to-the-grindstone approach to our science courses isn’t enough.
“A curriculum like this helps to expand our sense of what it means to heal through exploring what it means to be human.”