Q&A with professors of Humanism in Health & Healthcare course live cohort

Earlier this year, The Arnold P. Gold Foundation launched the free virtual course “Humanism in Health and Healthcare,” developed in partnership with Oakland University’s William Beaumont School of Medicine and NextGenU.org. The competency-based course can be easily used by medical and nursing schools or taken by individual students independently around the globe. 

In June 2020, Dr. Jason Adam Wasserman, who had led the development of the curriculum, and Dr. Hedy S. Wald, who was a content creator for the curriculum, created the first live class based on this course. Seventeen students — interprofessional, intergenerational — enrolled. The class included readings and reflective exercises done independently, as well as weekly live sessions on Zoom. Dr. Wald is a Clinical Professor of Family Medicine at Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. Dr. Wasserman is Associate Professor, Department of Foundational Medical Studies and Department of Pediatrics, Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine.

As the first live cohort wrapped up, the Gold Foundation engaged the two professors in a Q&A to learn how the class went and share lessons and advice for other instructors considering creating a similar format with a live class based on the NextGenU.org course curriculum. Learn more at the Gold Foundation’s Humanism in Health and Healthcare course page, too.

In June 2020, students gathered weekly on Zoom for discussions as part of the “Humanism in Health and Healthcare” live class led by Drs. Wasserman and Wald.

Tell us a little about why you wanted to offer this course to a group of students together, with mentorship. What were your main goals and hopes?

Dr. Jason Adam Wasserman

Dr. Jason Adam Wasserman: Dr. Wald and I are both big believers in the role of humanism in medicine.  From my perspective, the complexity of illness today involves all sorts of social and human factors that affect how people get sick and how well they manage their illnesses when they do.  This means that to be a successful clinician — to perform the core functions of diagnosis and treatment — you must understand who a patient is as a person, as well as their values and preferences.

Dr. Hedy S. Wald: I’m passionate about humanism in healthcare and how we can effectively translate theory to practice to enhance quality of healthcare. My scholarship includes using interactive reflective writing-enhanced reflection to support humanistic, resilient professional identity formation. A mentored framework would be a means of “walking the talk” of humanism in healthcare, starting with connection and collaborative reflection with students and faculty to enable an even deeper dive into this vital topic for the becoming of a healthcare professional.

How did you think about transforming the free online course, which can be taken independently, to a live cohort? What components did you add or modify?

Dr. Wasserman: The asynchronous online course I think is an excellent overview of humanism in medicine.  But I always had in mind that one of the ways in which it could be utilized was as a resource for a mentored experience for students.  This adds a layer of interaction, of iterative feedback, and allows for some more dynamic, qualitative assessments.

Dr. Hedy S. Wald

Dr. Wald: Dr. Wasserman and I worked together to craft large and small group discussions via Zoom format, which would springboard off the online readings and go beyond. Both of us facilitated critical thinking and analysis as well as synthesis and creative thinking. We added assignments of guided reflective writings and peer feedback and provided our own individualized written feedback to students’ writings, as well as some additional readings. Throughout the course, we encouraged the students to explore tensions and challenges within this domain and reflect on their own experiences, which can support transformative and confirmatory learning.

What were a few of the highlights or surprises?

Dr. Wasserman: Dr. Wald and I had been thinking about how to do a mentored course or educational experience for a little while when the COVID pandemic hit.  So one of the surprises was just how timely it became. Interacting with students is always the highlight of any course, but I think it was particularly nice to have students from around the country, from different clinical fields. Having students who are new to their profession as well as seasoned professionals in the course brought a nice mix of perspectives.

Dr. Wald: I loved how thoughtful and engaged the students were with the material. I also appreciated how they learned from each other within written peer feedback and group discussions, a true community of learning and practice. It was gratifying to see how seriously the students took the course and how they are already noticing positive impact in their healthcare work. I was pleased to see how both Dr. Wasserman’s areas of expertise and mine combined synergistically to benefit the students’ learning and I think, in the words of Dr. Roger Kneebone of the UK, there was “reciprocal illumination!” We learned from the students as well — a wonderful experience. The value of interactive (guided) reflective writing in health professions education is a special interest of mine, and it was gratifying to see this in action within this course. We’re grateful to the Gold Foundation for this opportunity.

This class was a bit unusual, in that both medical students and faculty enrolled. Do you discover any benefits or drawbacks?

Dr. Wasserman: I thought it was great.  The extensive clinical experiences of the faculty and mid-career professionals in the course were a fantastic contribution. As people just entering their fields, the students brought fresh perspectives and an energizing sense of possibility.

Dr. Wald: Ditto on Dr. Wasserman’s comments. In addition, the interprofessional mix was so valuable. Students mentioned gaining new perspectives from their interprofessional peers within both discussion groups and their written reflections. The faculty was interprofessional as well!

Do you have any recommendations for other instructors who are thinking about using the NextGenU.org curriculum as the foundation for a live course?

Dr. Wasserman: I think it’s important to take the NextGenU.org curriculum and constantly look for ways to make it personal, to give the students opportunity to work those concepts into their own narratives and use the readings to deepen their own sense of the things they’ve seen and experienced.  Reflective writing is a great way to do this, but there are other ways, too. It’s great any time you can pivot from the important concepts in an article, to addressing questions about how those concepts give us a deeper understanding of our patients, our social world, and our sense of ourselves.

Dr. Wald: I think humanism in healthcare extends to humanism in mentoring and healthcare education. Instructors should cultivate this within the course with an individualized approach and help students optimize their reflective learning and ability to move from theory to practice. John Dewey, a reflection theorist, wrote: “We do not learn from experience; we learn from reflecting on experience.” Interactive (guided) reflective writing can therefore be a helpful component, and faculty development is key.

What is next on the horizon for you both in teaching humanism in healthcare?

Dr. Wasserman: We’re interested in teaching new cohorts of students in a similar format. We are currently co-teaching a similar seminar for Trinity College School of Medicine in Dublin.  Beyond that, we are beginning to talk about how a “train the trainer”-style course might look, so that we can provide faculty development around how to build a course in humanism in health and healthcare, particularly in an online environment.

Dr. Wald: The reach of a humanism in healthcare course and its global relevance is striking. Our current seminar for the Trinity College School of Medicine in Dublin includes medical students from Ireland, Canada, the United States, Oman, Singapore, and Malaysia. We are pleased with the response thus far and are interested in expanding to other schools, as the course content can be foundational (and fortifying) for cultivating humanistic, reflective, ethically vigilant, and resilient professional identity formation. And ideally, the course also helps sustain humanistic medicine with enhanced quality of care and caring