Season 4 - Episode 405
Baylor’s pioneering Medical Humanities program shapes medical practitioners who treat patients as a whole person as they care for them. Last fall, the DeBakey Medical Foundation made a significant investment in Baylor Medical Humanities that will grow the department and formed a chair position. In this Baylor Connections, Dr. Lauren Barren, the inaugural DeBakey Chair of Medical Humanities, shares how the program partners the humanities with science education to holistically prepare those going into the medical field.
Derek Smith:Hello, and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week, we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors, and more, discussing important topics in higher education, research, and student life. I'm Derek Smith, and our guest today is Dr. Lauren Barron, a medical doctor and Baylor professor. Dr. Barron serves as the inaugural Michael E. DeBakey, MD, Selma DeBakey, and Lois DeBakey chair for medical humanities. A Baylor graduate, Dr. Barron returned Waco after medical school to serve at Waco's Family Health Center developing special interests in women's health and palliative care. She went on to join a private family practice and served as Medical Director for Hillcrest Community Hospice. Along the way she began teaching courses within Baylor's Medical Humanities, a program which encompasses a liberal arts education in connection with modern medical practice. With an interdisciplinary approach, Baylor Medical Humanities includes courses across a wide range, including literature, religion, philosophy, history, economics, and ethics. She transitioned to teaching at Baylor on a full-time basis while maintaining her medical practice through the family health center. And last fall was named as the DeBakey chair for medical humanities, which was established through Baylor's Give Light philanthropic campaign. You've been involved in a number of different important areas at Baylor and in this community. I know it's been a particularly busy and exciting stretch for you, Dr. Barron, and for Baylor Medical Humanities. And we thank you for coming on the program today to talk about that.
Lauren Barron:Thank you. I'm delighted to be here.
Derek Smith:Well, you shared some information right at the top about why it's been an exciting time with the establishment of the DeBakey chair. What has it meant to you and to the program that the DeBakey Medical Foundation would invest in this program in this way?
Lauren Barron:Well, having an endowed chair from the DeBakey Medical Foundation has to be one of the greatest honors and endorsements that we could imagine. Dr. DeBakey always emphasized excellence, and the DeBakey name is medical royalty. I mean, he's one of the most well known surgeons of all time. So chair and the DeBakey name really validates, and confirms, and blesses, and honors the work that we're doing, not just locally, but also nationally and internationally as well.
Derek Smith:Well, you mentioned that he's a renowned surgeon, I know that people who have ties to the medical field and higher ed practice as well might know the DeBakey name, but when people hear that name and the fact that it is placed in conjunction with our medical humanities program in regards to this chair, who was Michael DeBakey and Selma and Lois, and why they've established things in his name?
Lauren Barron:Well, Michael DeBakey, he was famous for surgical innovations like coronary bypass operations, so open-heart surgery. He pioneered carotid surgery for prevention of strokes and artificial hearts, and devices that help assist the heart when people have congestive heart failure and need transplant. He was one of the pioneers of using the Dacron grafts or artificial grafts to replace blood vessels. And he also pioneered the repair of aortic aneurysms, which was an operation that he actually himself needed when he was 97 years old. His partner, Dr. George Noon had to perform that surgery on Dr. DeBakey, and he lived to practice a few more years after that, and there are surgical instruments that bear his name. So he's still one of the most celebrated surgeons of all time. He was very close to his two sisters, Selma and Lois that are named in the endowed chair. And they were professors of scientific communication. In 1962, they actually created the first communication course in a medical school curriculum. So they devoted themselves, in addition by the way, to editing Dr. DeBakey's articles that were printed in medical journals, they taught courses and symposiums, and traveled all over the world teaching about medical communication, and helping doctors to avoid medical jargon, and do a better job of communicating with their patients. They actually had an office just down the hall that they shared together. They had an office down the hall from Dr. DeBakey in the Texas Medical Center, and the sisters, Selma and Lois, were a big part of Dr. Michael DeBakey's success. So they worked very closely together in the medical field.
Derek Smith:That's great. So a true team, as well as names together on the chair in the foundations. We visit with Dr. Lauren Barron here on Baylor Connections, and we're going to dive in here to what Baylor Medical Humanities is all about, and how it comes together, what it looks like, but kind of to start off from a higher level around a selling point a little bit, whether it's for those of us who might meet someone who's gone through the program, or for students who might come into the program. So most of us obviously are going to meet a doctor or a surgeon at some point, and there are plenty of great ones out there. So why would we want someone who's gone through the medical humanities program? Why would you be excited for the doctor or surgeon with whom we work to have come through the medical humanities program?
Lauren Barron:Well, I would say I would be excited because that practitioner is going to treat you as a human being and not just as a human body. So there's so much more to medicine than science. And what I want to say at that outset, Derek, is nobody wants to go back to days when we didn't have the medical science that we do now. I mean, it's a given, we must be excellent in science. It's just absolutely fundamental. So I don't want anyone to hear the term medical humanities and think that's instead of the medical science that we need. I want people to understand that what we need is the humanities laid alongside the sciences. So science is about sameness. It's about the universal laws that underlie everything all the time for everyone, but every human life is different. So what the humanities help us with is to pay attention to what's particular, what's unique, what's individual, what's special about that person in front of us. So for a physician who has a background in the humanities, that's the main thing. They're going to be able to take care of that whole human being and not just the body as some sort of medical machine.
Derek Smith:Baylor was a pioneer in this type of program. What was that pioneering time like, and how have you seen it impact higher education?
Lauren Barron:Well, it's exciting because Baylor is one of the oldest and one of the first medical humanities programs in the entire country. It started out with the course that was taught by Ann Miller, Bill Hillis, and Kay Toombs. Ann Miller, of course, from the English department, and Bill Hillis, Dr. Bill Hillis from biology, and Dr. Kay Toombs from philosophy, and they got together to teach a course called Literary and Philosophical Perspectives in Medicine, and it was one of the very first interdisciplinary courses. Dr. Reynolds wanted to see more interdisciplinary courses. And so this course, which started in the 1990s, became famous. It became kind of a rock star of classes. There was so much talk about it, because interdisciplinary courses weren't that common. So to have a physician, a master teacher of literature, and a philosopher altogether to talk about medical issues was very unique, and that course really grew into the medical humanities program. So it started out as a minor, and then in 2007, we had our first graduates that were majors in medical humanities. There were seven in 2007, and now we have close to 300 students. So there's been massive growth. And I think one of the reasons that is, is because it's tapping into this understanding that science and technology alone are not going solve all of our problems. I think there's an intuition that science by itself is not going to fix everything. Science can give us knowledge that's deep, and rich, and important, and transformational, but we can't learn wisdom from the sciences. It's to the humanities that we have to turn for the wisdom about how to apply that scientific information. So we need both together. And it's fascinating to see that over the last several years, there's been a massive increase in medical humanities programs all across the nation. And now there are around a hundred universities that have some form of medical humanities or health humanities, and Baylor can be so proud that we were one of the very, very first.
Derek Smith:This is Baylor Connections, we are visiting with Dr. Lauren Barron. She serves as the inaugural Michael E. DeBakey, MD, Selma DeBakey, and Lois DeBakey chair for Medical Humanities at Baylor. And you've done a great job telling us a little bit about the history and what it accomplishes. And you accomplish that in some creative ways and some novel ways. So what are some of the ways that you accomplish the goals that you talk about with students and incorporate these disparate threads, if you will, into this broader whole?
Lauren Barron:Well, one of the main things that's so important to say is that we have the support and the assistance, and the participation of colleagues all across campus in all kinds of different disciplines. So having professors who are historians, philosophers, religious scholars in the classics, in literature, in art, in sociology, in anthropology, in economics, in language and linguistics. All of these different disciplines have a perspective that really, really enrich the education of people who are going to work in and around healthcare. I think it's really important to point out that, that when you hear this term medical humanities that we realize it's not just about training doctors. So it's not just for pre-med students. I like to say it's for anyone who's going to work in or around healthcare, because I'm thrilled to have students that are interested in all different professions learning together, because we have to work in teams in health healthcare, and we haven't been good at that. It's been very siloed in terms of separate disciplines, but to have students who want to be physicians, dentists, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, speech therapists, occupational therapists, pharmacy, just all across any kind of health profession you can think of, not to mention public health, healthcare policy, and healthcare administration. All of these different students that are interested in all these fields are learning together. So that brings an interdisciplinary interprofessional kind of approach, and they're learning from professors all across the university, which all have a perspective and a voice to share with anyone who's going to be working in or around healthcare. So that's one way in that it's interdisciplinary and interprofessional. Another way would be the fact that there are not going to be a lot of multiple choice tests in a lot of our classes. When you have a patient in front of you, you can't answer it with them with a multiple choice question. So there's a lot of writing, there's a lot of critical thinking, there's a lot of room for creativity, and there's a lot of room for collaboration, and conversation, and discussion. And so all of these are ways that we feel are unique to the medical humanities curriculum.
Derek Smith:Well, Dr. Barron, you mentioned that there's not a lot of multiple choice here. If we were to sit in, and I know there's probably a million directions you could go with this, but if we were to eavesdrop on a class these days, what are some examples of topics that we might hear students and faculty discussing that really are that kind of complex look at a topic that takes more than just that one discipline to really examine?
Lauren Barron:Absolutely. Well, I would say considering the times we're living in, medical ethics for one. Dr. Devin Stahl in the religion department and Dr. Anne Jeffrey in the philosophy department teach bioethics and medical ethics, and I've sat in on their classes, and I cannot think of a more important or timely conversations to be having than medical ethics. It amazes me that last January, I was teaching an introduction to medical humanities class where we were talking about the theoretical idea of rationing and a lottery system for medical treatment, like vaccines. That was in January of last year. And here we are in January, and this is not theoretical anymore. So these conversations could not be more crucial where we're actually seeing it in action. Having to figure out how to ethically make sure that everyone has access to the vaccine. Talking about another example would be a class that Dr. Stephanie Boddie in the school of social work and I have launched and are teaching this semester on disrupting racial disparities in healthcare. So anyone who's practiced for any length of time has seen these racial disparities played out, but COVID has really highlighted that, and it's really pointed to weaknesses and problems in the system. And so having these frank and open, and I would say courageous conversations about issues like race in medicine, and how we try to close those gaps and disparities, talking directly about medical mistrust, that is just intrinsic, it's just entrenched in medicine, that there is a tremendous amount of mistrust that minority communities have for mainstream medicine. Which by the way, is well-founded based on a lot of history that's very hurtful. And so learning how to have those conversations and talk about those upfront, those are the kinds of things you'd be hearing in classes. You'd be hearing talk about end of life conversations, you'd be hearing conversations about how to best communicate with between patients and practitioners, but I would say the medical ethics conversations, particularly with an emphasis on racial disparities is something that would really make your ears perk up.
Derek Smith:That's great. We are visiting with Dr. Lauren Barron, and Dr. Barron talking back at the beginning of the program, we talked about the fact that the DeBakey Foundation had made this generous donation to endow this chair for medical humanities. In what way is that investment in and as this chair position that you hold, will it facilitate growth within the program?
Lauren Barron:Well, I mentioned how we've had tremendous growth in terms of the interest in the numbers of students that we have. It's not uncommon at all for students to tell me that they selected Baylor because the medical humanities program is a distinctive. That they wanted to be able to enjoy while they were getting their education. What this chair does is it's going to allow us to have other faculty, it's going to allow us, we hope, to have more publication and scholarship, and it's going to enhance the national prominence of the program and the international prominence of the program. And we hope that this chair is also going to make it even more attractive for a collaboration with colleagues all across the university. Another thing that it does, is it speaks to the commitment that Baylor University has toward health, and health professions, and research endeavors connected with health and medicine that are part of Baylor's aluminate goals.
Derek Smith:That's great. Well, it'll be exciting to see how it grows in the months and the years ahead. And one final question for you, Dr. Barron, are you able to hear from other practitioners within the field, as they get to know your graduates? The program has been going on for awhile now. You've got people in the field that kind of maybe proud feedback you're able to receive.
Lauren Barron:Absolutely. So, in fact, I just got an email out of the blue from a proud Baylor graduate. Who's practicing in Florida. It happens all the time that people in the medical field that are proud of their heritage at Baylor contact us, and what I mainly here is they say, this is the way that healthcare professionals should be educated. And I commonly hear that practitioners out there wish they had had more medical ethics, they wish they'd had more healthcare economics, they wish they had had some of these amazing courses that would help prepare them. What happens in medical training, and again, when I say medical training, I don't mean just medical school. I mean, any kind of health profession's training, or any kind of graduate training in healthcare policy, or subsequent training in administration in healthcare, what happens is that curriculum is so crowded. There's so much to learn that what it ends up looking like is trying to sneak in a medical ethics lecture, or trying to sneak in an elective about healthcare economics, or trying to cram in some of these things that are in our curriculum. And it just doesn't work. It just doesn't fit when you're trying to cram it in through the cracks of an already crowded curriculum. So what's so special about what we're doing at Baylor, is imagine if instead, all of these fields formed the foundation that your subsequent medical training was built on top of. That's a game changer, and that's what we're doing at Baylor is providing this rich, and deep, and broad foundation in the humanities. And when I say humanities, I mean, humanities with a, usually with a focus in medicine and healthcare, and then building that training top of it is just it's revolutionary and it is so powerful. And what we're hearing from our graduates, who did go through the program with medical humanities, is that they are uniquely prepared in a way that a lot of their colleagues aren't, that haven't been exposed to the humanities and liberal arts, like we're able to do at Baylor. They're able to connect with, and communicate with, and engage with patients in a more whole and fulsome kind of way than if you were just approaching that patient as pathology. To be able to approach patients as people, rather than just their pathology, I think is the way I would sum it up.
Derek Smith:Well, that's great. That's very important, very exciting, and we're excited to see what's ahead for the program. And thank you for your time today, and congratulations on the new chair position, excited to see what that leads to.
Lauren Barron:Thank you very much.
Derek Smith:Thank you. Dr. Lauren Barron, the inaugural Michael E. DeBakey, MD, Selma DeBakey, and Lois DeBakey chair for Medical Humanities, our guest today here on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith, a reminder, you can hear this and other programs online at baylor.edu/connections, and you can subscribe to the program on iTunes. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.