How can you tell if a medical school has a humanistic approach?

We recently asked our medical student bloggers: “What signs of humanism would you tell incoming medical students to look for as they visit different campuses? ” Here are their answers:

Jana Christian

Jana Christian,  Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons
“If I could speak to prospective medical students about how to detect humanism in medicine as they begin to explore different medical schools, I would encourage them to focus on the elements of the medical school that will influence them day-to-day in their pursuit to grow into compassionate and competent physicians.  Although the school’s mission statement is a wonderful place to start in exploring what that institution holds as most important, do not stop there.  Explore the student organizations currently running, discover the patient population that is served, investigate the cultural differences and communities that are celebrated, and consider the curriculum and opportunities to learn about the social elements of health and disease.  Every medical school will teach you histology, pathology, and everything you need to know to become a competent doctor, but it is the emphasis on mental health and self-care, the encouragement for students to engage in self-reflection, and the contagious desire of my peers to engage in community work that make me so thankful that I attend medical school.”

J. Chika Morah, University of Toledo College of Medicine in OhioJay Chika Morah
“Incoming medical students should really try to get a sense of the environment of a medical school, whether it is comfortable and welcoming or too tense. Are current medical students coming up to talk to you? Do you feel comfortable asking for help, or do you feel as if you are bothering them? Is your tour guide genuinely enthusiastic and excited about you possibly attending their school in the future? The friendliness of staff and fellow students is a major indicator of humanism. Current students can easily spot a group of incoming students on a tour or waiting for their next interview. Even while visiting the library, you should be able to spot a smiling face, as well as a few students studying in groups and working together to help one another. Even during your interview, signs of humanism can be spotted. Humanistic interviewers will take the time to get to know you for you, and not just drill you on elements of your application. Pay attention to the ethical dilemma questions that they ask you. They not only want to attract intelligent people, but people who are also kind-hearted and who will strive to do the right thing in even the most uncomfortable situations.”

Eduardo Salazar, The University of Arizona College of Medicine – PhoenixEduardo Salazar
“If you want to learn what a particular program is about, talk to the students. I think that the medical school application process can be a tool through which prospective students understand the traits that programs are looking for, but the best way to find humanism at a medical school is to talk to the students. One of the deciding factors for me to come to The University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix was that all the students were happy and involved in a wide variety of service opportunities, both medical and non-medical. Students are always the best insight to a program.”


Natalie Sous, Rutgers New Jersey Medical School
When I was applying to medical school I looked for places that encouraged students to get involved with the local community. So much of our education is spent in lecture, or with textbooks, yet we can’t treat our patients if we don’t understand the obstacles they face. Schools that are committed to service learning help students see things from the patient’s perspective, which is a very important part of our education.”

Natalie Strokes

Natalie Strokes, A.T. Still University’s School of Osteopathic Medicine in Arizona
“I think the easiest way to figure out if the medical school has a humanistic approach is to talk to the current students at that school and also observe the feel of the school on interview day. I am interested in serving the underserved so I was looking for a school that stressed service. I noticed during my interview days what they focused on when they looked at my application and the schools that I liked turned out to be the ones that asked me about my more unique experiences such as living in India or training a therapy dog, not about my grades or research. I also found that the staff and students are key to creating a good environment. My school has many physicians that regularly take a day to volunteer at free medical clinics. They also stress how important history taking is as a medical skill, especially asking about the social determinants of health and really truly trying to understand where your patients are coming from. The current students at the school should be able to guide you on whether or not the school has a more humanistic approach, but interview day will also be a key way to figure out what the school focuses on most.”

Evan Torline

Evan TorlineUniversity of Louisville School of Medicine in Kentucky
“Developing a humanistic understanding of medicine is a fairly practical thing to do for an individual.  For a medical institution to do so, in all the same ways and manners, is a bit more complicated. With all the requirements that are put on schools’ curriculum and student training hours, a commitment to humanism can fall by the wayside. That is why I think it’s the little things that count when looking for somewhere that will help you develop that much needed humanistic touch. First, I would see if they offer any time to/or encourage taking electives in the humanities. Second, ask them if they have any active clubs or societies committed to the humanities. And lastly, do the faculty, students, and community treat you with due respect and kindness? All these things may seem small and innocuous by themselves, but I wager that when they are all present, it will likely be somewhere you want to be.”

Other questions our medical student bloggers have answered:

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