Why is our program uniquely entitled The Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics? Why do we insist on bringing these specific three elements together in this sequence?

Because (1) from medical humanities (literature, film, the arts, poetry, and narrative medicine centered on the experience of illness) we learn about patients at the level of depth needed to
(2) enliven the compassionate care and attentive communication that they desire and need from providers, and this in turn
(3) improves ethical decision making, clinical outcomes, patient satisfaction, and provider meaning and well-being.

This is our philosophy, and we invite you to explore it with us below.

Dear Friends:

There is a place where the human side of medicine is elevated, examined, and revered. Our Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics, situated in the Department of Family, Population and Preventive Medicine in the School of Medicine, is devoted to training medical students and health professionals as well as conducting high impact research and scholarship in the three thematic components reflected in its name. While we maintain and develop curricula on these three themes with a primary focus on the medical school, we are also actively engaged in undergraduate and graduate teaching across the university. We maintain a productive research portfolio combining work in the traditional humanities including bioethics, narrative medicine, health care justice, health policy, and history; clinically-oriented scholarship centered on compassion, altruism, and palliative care; and NIH funded scientific research. Building on a rich legacy of four decades of exemplary medical humanism at the Stony Brook University School of Medicine, the Center was founded in August of 2008.

Medical Humanities 

The medical humanities, including literature, history, philosophy, and the arts, sensitize students and health professionals to the patient as a person who deserves to be treated with dignity against the background of a healthcare system that can be de-humanizing, impersonal, and lacking care in the most fundamental sense of the term. Through novels, short stories and poems, those who have experienced illness illustrate our common humanity, while those who provide care are able to reflect on the meaning of their professional calling. In a time when patients may complain that they are treated more like biological specimens than human beings, the medical humanities play a critical role in the education of medical professionals. Appreciation of art and literature in the context of illness and healing develops the mindfulness, empathy, and compassion that can inform, even transform, medical practice.

Compassionate Care 

It is not a new idea that compassion should be an essential quality in medical care. Dr. Francis Peabody of Harvard wrote nearly a century ago, “The secret to the care of the patient is in caring for the patient.” In the absence of compassion, patients are dissatisfied and professionals lament a loss of meaning and gratification in their work. Compassionate care makes otherwise technically competent students real healers, motivates them to travel to Haiti after an earthquake or spend their day off providing free care for the uninsured, and ultimately makes their professional lives truly successful. Our Center takes responsibility for the education of students and professionals in compassionate care through emphasizing professionalism, empathy, and caring for self and others, and by bringing to the forefront the new science of compassion as an evolved human capacity which has a clear impact on patient outcomes and professional flourishing.

We firmly stand by the principle that an essential aspect of compassionate care is ensuring the highest quality care for underserved populations and access to health care for all.

Bioethics and Clinical Ethics

Bioethics is the systematic study of the moral dimensions – including moral vision, decisions, conduct, and policies – of the life sciences and health care, employing a variety of ethical methodologies in an interdisciplinary setting. From the beginning to the end of life, biotechnologies raise every conceivable question about human dignity and the future of human nature itself. Nearly all academic disciplines contribute to the ongoing discussions in bioethics.

Clinical ethics is an essential modulation of compassionate care, for it involves respect for patients and families as they make difficult decisions about treatment. Our Center is deeply immersed in clinical ethics across the Medical Center, and in the education of medical students in this vital area which is now a core aspect of licensure exams and of ongoing professional development. We provide key faculty leadership for the Hospital Ethics Committee and clinical consultation service.

Leadership Goals  

We seek to:

  1. encourage the practice and pedagogy of compassionate care and humanistic medicine in medical students and across the medical center, and to help close the gap between the teaching of high professional values and the role modeling that students observe outside the classroom
  2. contribute outstanding humanistic scholarship and empirical research in medical humanities, compassionate care, and bioethics to develop a national reputation for excellence in these areas
  3. provide practical service and consultation in clinical ethics so as to enhance the experience of patients
  4. extend our efforts to the wider community both locally and nationally, thereby contributing to a positive culture of compassionate care

Stephen G. Post, PhD