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It All Works Together: Integrating Arts and Humanities Knowledge Into the Medical Field


The focus in healthcare is shifting back to patient-centered healthcare, where physician and patient work together to determine what methods are working and how to best treat the person behind the illness. This philosophy of care focuses on opening lines of communication between the doctor and patient, developing a relationship that ultimately improves health and outcomes. JoNell Strough, professor in the Department of Psychology, and Kristina Hash, professor in the School of Social Work, sat down to discuss how a background in humanities makes for better communicators and more effective physicians. 


Strough: I think the liberal arts aspect of education is critical in terms of helping students think critically about issues and realize that across disciplines, a lot of the same issues are being addressed, but from different perspectives. 

Hash: Having students who are well-rounded in terms of arts, humanities and science helps them think about different ways of intervening with individuals and families, but also connecting with people on those levels and not just on a purely medical level with them. People are really more than just a medical condition. If you’re looking at it holistically and looking at a whole person, they’re much more than a medical condition. There are all these pieces of their personalities and pieces of their lives. They’re bio, psycho, social, spiritual people. 


Strough: There’s this idea of the whole person and understanding — in a medical situation in particular — the perceptions and thoughts and history of a person that they bring to a setting. That their memories and those sorts of things are going to affect how they respond to recommendations from a physician. One of the things that psychology in particular provides — if we’re thinking about how to use the social sciences to enhance the effectiveness of interventions — is just really taking into account what the whole person brings to the situation and that a “one size strategy” might not always fit the person. 

We know now there are systematic age differences and what is important to people as they grow older. My sense is that maybe the medical students don’t get that training and background in normal human developmental processes that we know a lot about, and I think could make a real contribution by taking that into account. I don’t think having students take one class in life-span development is enough. 

Hash: Definitely not. When you think about other opportunities in communication studies and what that could bring to a student. When you have a background in English — where you have students who spend a lot of time writing with expression, critical thinking and reading and analyzing other pieces of writing, and the amount of analysis that takes — it all comes together in developing their critical thinking, communication and problem-solving. 

Strough: I think one of the things across the board that arts and sciences offers is that ability to think critically — think about the source of the information. Is that a trusted source? What did they base their conclusions on? Really look into that and perhaps challenge some of the conclusions based on the methods used. I think all the different disciplines have their ways of going about that, but I think the common thread that runs across is the critical thinking and the bottom line conclusion to see if you agree and how that conclusion was arrived at. 


Hash: In terms of research, they’ve actually shown outcomes that the use of arts and humanities in health settings has been beneficial to patients as well as practitioners. For example, they’ve shown it has improved mental health, has improved the relationships between practitioners and clients or patients, reduced hospital stays and reduced the need for medications, which are all things that you want out of a healthcare scenario. 

Strough: Sort of building on that, a lot of health problems and diseases are at their root behavioral in nature. There are problems in behavior, and the disease and disability sort of shows up as a longer-term outcome of that, so I think an understanding and appreciation for how to understand and modify behavior to help people develop more successfully, age more successfully and how to promote healthy aging — I think that definitely has something to offer and bring to the table. 

Hash: A big piece of that, too — it’s not really a new area, but it’s becoming more central in terms of attention — is health literacy. It focuses on how you communicate health information to individuals and then what they do with that information. In terms of communication studies, English, social work, psychology, all of these disciplines come together in that particular area. 

JoNell Strough is a life span developmental psychologist. Her research investigates decision making, everyday problem-solving and successful development and healthy aging. She recently co-edited the first book in the field on aging and decision making, “Aging and Decision Making: Empirical and Applied Perspectives.” In 2014, Strough received the Outstanding Researcher Award from the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences. Strough is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association and the Gerontological Society of America. Her research is supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. 

Kristina Hash is the director of the WVU Gerontology Certificate program, and has a background in home health and community-based activities with older adults. Her driving force to focus on social work was her experience as a caregiver for her grandmother. She is an editor and author of the book “Aging in Rural Place: Programs, Policies, and Professional Practice.” She comes from a family of WVU graduates and holds an M.S.W. and Graduate Gerontology Certificate from WVU. 



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