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Rising Mortality Rate Sheds Light on Need for Medical Humanities

Jan 24, 2022
5 min Read
Cindy Workman
Hands reaching out

COVID-19, heart disease and cancer are the three leading causes of death that attributed to 2020 being the deadliest year in U.S. history to date, with approximately 3 million deaths overall, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The record-high mortality rate is increasing demand for medical care and continually evolving how clinicians approach end-of-life care.

In the Creighton University School of Medicine, students receive medical humanities education to learn how to provide holistic, empathetic care to vulnerable patients as they face the unknowns of their conditions.

Medical humanities explores humans in the context of medicine through the disciplines of the arts, humanities and social sciences. All students pursuing a medical degree participate in required humanities and ethics sessions and take elective courses offered through the medical humanities department to bridge the understanding of both the physical and psychological needs of patients, creating academically well-rounded students who make connections across broad fields of knowledge.

“Creighton is on the leading edge of incorporating the medical humanities into medical school and forming compassionate physicians,” said Nicole Piemonte, Ph.D., assistant dean in Creighton’s School of Medicine. “We can’t care for the whole person without understanding their lives and the social embeddedness of who they are. This can’t be taught through science and statistics alone. We need different ways of knowing and that is what humanities has to offer.”

The discipline helps bring meaning, purpose and dignity to a patient’s life during critical care moments. Having trained clinicians in hospice care and palliative care has been particularly crucial during the pandemic, as Piemonte believes clinicians with medical humanities training are better equipped to be an empathetic presence for those receiving care for terminal illnesses or facing end-of-life decisions without family beside them.

“The study of the humanities connects the philosophy of life with the value of care. There’s a humanness and sharedness between the patient and clinician when this connection is made that brings comfort to the patient,” Piemonte said.
While both hospice care and palliative care specialties require conversations about care goals, the two are often misunderstood to be the same specialty. Helping patients understand the difference is the first step in providing holistic care and better quality of life.

Hospice care provides guidance and support to patients who are terminally ill, have stopped disease-directed treatment and have fewer than six months to live. Trained members of the patient’s care team are equipped with skills to provide the best possible care for patients and their families as they navigate difficult situations and conversations.

Contrary to hospice care, palliative care is for patients who are still undergoing treatments and facing serious or terminal illnesses that impact their quality of life. Such conditions can include dialysis, cancer treatment, chronic pain, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and even the effects of COVID-19. Those who do receive palliative care from trained specialists undergo symptom management to continue living their lives or continue treatments for their condition as comfortably as possible.

The need for palliative care is expected to double by 2060, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Despite the universal need, only one in 10 individuals in need of palliative care receive it. Piemonte says the general confusion between palliative and hospice care could delay care if it’s introduced too late in the treatment of particular conditions.
“With an education in humanities and both specialties, students will become trained communicators with the ability to relate to their patients, which can result in the best possible care, compassion and support at the most crucial time in their patients’ lives,” Piemonte said.

Creighton’s inclusion of the humanities also trains future medical professionals to practice self-reflection and care for their own wellness during their career. Learn more about Creighton’s medical humanities program.