Howard and Georgetown Universities To Launch Joint Medical Humanities Center Funded by Mellon Foundation Grant

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WASHINGTON (January 19, 2023) — The Mellon Foundation has awarded a 3.5 year, $3 million grant to support a collaboration between Georgetown University and Howard University in the establishment of a center for medical humanities. The Georgetown-Howard Center for Medical Humanities and Health Justice will focus on reducing health disparities in Washington through leveraging methods of critical inquiry at the heart of the humanities.

Medical humanities is an interdisciplinary field that recenters health in its broader social, cultural and historical context. Bridging the clinic and the archive, it uses humanities and social sciences methods to explore, analyze and critique the contexts of illness and health. Disciplines represented include history, literary studies, philosophy, bioethics, cultural studies, religion, psychology, medical anthropology, and the visual and performing arts.

“These approaches play a frontline role in contextualizing health care, shaping health policy and communication, resource allocation, dismantling racism and health disparities, caring for vulnerable communities, understanding the experience of illness and suffering, providing a source of comfort, interpreting and making meaning from crisis, engaging with uncertainty, and envisioning alternatives,” says Lakshmi Krishnan, MD, PhD, assistant professor of medicine at Georgetown’s School of Medicine and co-leader of the Mellon Foundation grant. Krishnan also is founding director of the Georgetown Medical Humanities Initiative and directs the Medical Humanities, Culture, and Society minor program in the College of Arts & Sciences.

Lakshmi Krishnan, MD, PhD
Lakshmi Krishnan, MD, PhD (Image: Tina Krohn)

“Health practitioners can only treat ‘the whole person’ when they are able to recognize and value humanity in its many facets, and there is enormous potential to improve outcomes by taking this broader view of health,” she adds.

The Center for Medical Humanities and Health Justice is grounded in the needs of the Washington community. It will apply a medical humanities approach in addressing key health impact areas, health disparities related to race/ethnicity and income, and advancing health equity in the city of Washington.

The center’s overarching goals are twofold — to incorporate medical humanities in addressing health disparities in Washington and to have multigenerational impact.

“This grant allows us to establish a critical foundation on which to build our work,” explains the grant’s co-leader Dana A. Williams, PhD, dean of Howard University’s Graduate School and professor of African-American literature. “The center is organized around three broad areas of impact.”

Dana Williams, PhD
Dana Williams, PhD (Image: R.Dione Foto)

The first area of work for the center is growing the field of critical medical humanities, which focuses on critique of the biomedical sciences by elevating engagement with the humanities and social sciences. The center will model humanistic engagement with more applied and practical fields through critical examinations of health care delivery and the advancement of health equity and work to solve health problems in DC in a more holistic and effective way.

Second, the center will explore curricular changes that move away from a Eurocentric focused understanding of medicine by recentering local, global, and comparative networks of thought, especially the ways non-Western civilizations incorporate humanistic inquiry with understandings of health.

Finally, the center will build cross-institutional and community research engagement, which will reinvent traditional solo humanities inquiry through a team science model and pursue research agendas in impact areas shaping disparate health outcomes in Washington.

Uniquely, the Georgetown-Howard Center for Medical Humanities and Health Justice also aims to immerse humanistic fields traditionally siloed to the classroom into the realm of public action.

“In every way, the center will embrace the public aspect of public humanities and situate itself at the intersection of medical and health humanities to affirm its commitment to public health,” says Williams. “It will serve as a research and educational hub convening community partners, academic faculty, and undergraduate, graduate and professional students.”

To achieve this work, the center has organized the work into three established pillars: research “labs,” a degree program, and a fellows program.

Supported by faculty and community fellows, the research labs will pursue research agendas on issues specific to the most troublesome health challenges in DC and will provide online, open access resources in addition to convening events.

The degree program will leverage both universities’ strengths to offer a progressive curriculum committed to the alleviation, not the management, of health care challenges and health disparities.

The fellows program will involve faculty from both universities, community partners, and public-facing activities related to the impact areas that inform the labs’ work.

“Through our longitudinal work, the center seeks to transform the field of medical humanities, the humanities and health professions pipeline, our institutions, and our city itself,” Krishnan says.

“We are most grateful to the Mellon Foundation which, through this grant and others, is demonstrating its stated commitment to be a problem-solving foundation through the humanities in addressing historically underserved populations to create more just communities,” Williams says.