Published: March 30, 2018

Practicing humanism in medicine 

Contact(s): Geri Kelley College of Human Medicine office: (616) 233-1678 cell: (616) 350-7976

On Jan. 27, the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine hosted its first conference on humanism in medicine.

More than 70 medical students from all over the state came to Grand Rapids to learn how they can do a better job of caring for their patients – and for themselves.

“The turnout was great,” said Ajay Khilanani, an assistant professor of medicine and an intensive care pediatrician at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, who came up with the idea of organizing what he hopes will be the college’s first annual Humanism in Medicine Conference.

“I was concerned, because medical students have a lot of demands on their time, but showing up is an indication that they want to fulfill a need for humanism,” Khilanani said. “The fact that so many showed up is an indication that they want to fulfill a need for humanism.”

The conference included a series of TED-style talks on innovation in medicine and how to become the kind of physicians who treat not only disease but the whole patient.

“To me, the art of medicine is how you approach a patient and how you approach the family,” Khilanani said. “Do you stand or sit down? Do you look them in the eye? It’s all about empathy skills. You’re treating a human being.”

The College of Human Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics and Human Development and the Arnold P. Gold Foundation provided funding for the conference.

The conference was organized by the college’s Gold Humanism Honor Society, which encourages health professionals “to provide compassionate, collaborative and scientifically excellent patient care.”

“The health care system is a very dehumanizing place,” said Julie Phillips, associate professor of family medicine and adviser to the Gold Humanism Honor Society. “It can often feel like patients are treated like objects.

Throughout its history, the College of Human Medicine has emphasized treating the whole patient and showing them respect, the same goals set forth by the Gold Foundation, she said.

“It’s good for the patients when we treat them as whole people, not just a case,” Phillips said.  

In order to do that, physicians must be mindful of their own health and wellness, she added, which is why the conference included speakers who guided the students through yoga and meditation.

“Physician burnout is a huge problem,” said Phillips, adding that “burnout can start even at the student level.”

Jessica Priestley, a fourth-year student and president of the college’s Gold Humanism Honor Society, can attest to that.

Following the lectures, the students broke into two groups. One painted the interior of a house for a father caring for his young son following an auto accident that killed the boy’s mother and brother. And the other helped a family of seven refugees from the Congo fill out applications for green cards.

“It was really great to get out and think beyond ourselves,” Priestley said. “It was a reminder of the kind of doctor I want to be.”