New Department to Bring Humanities and Bioethics Into Focus

January 2, 2018

The Columbia University Trustees have approved the newest department for the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons: the Department of Medical Humanities and Ethics. Rita Charon, MD, PhD, professor of medicine at CUMC, is the inaugural chair. The department, which launched Jan. 1, 2018, is one of two new departments approved since Systems Biology was established in 2013. The other, the Department of Emergency Medicine, was approved in late 2016, and the inaugural chair, Angela M. Mills, MD, will join Columbia in February 2018. The two new departments bring the total number of academic departments at P&S to 27.

Dr. Rita Charon
Rita Charon, MD, PhD

Medical humanities and ethics is a broad term that covers several areas of study—philosophy, literary studies, history, religious studies, law, social sciences, and the arts—that help students and practitioners of medicine to understand and address the complex human experiences inherent in health, illness, and death. Clinical and basic sciences departments provide the foundations for discovery, diagnosis, and disease management, but the pace of ever-growing ethical and societal challenges related to health care has created the need for a formal effort to focus attention on the existential and moral dimensions of research and patient care programs.

Dr. Charon will lead the department in pursuit of its three primary goals: education, research, and scholarship in the medical humanities and the arts; ethical, legal, and social research and scholarship in emerging fields of socially complex translational sciences; and research and scholarship on professionalism and social justice in health care.

The Department of Medical Humanities and Ethics is composed of divisions devoted to ethics, narrative medicine, and professionalism and health care justice. The three divisions will collaborate to conduct research, continue an already rigorous teaching program in P&S, work with scientists and clinicians throughout CUMC on ethical, legal, and social aspects of medicine, and host visiting scholars. Joining Dr. Charon in directing the divisions of the new department will be Sandra Soo-Jin Lee, PhD, a Stanford University anthropologist and bioethicist with an international reputation in the ethics of precision medicine and human genomics, and David Rothman, PhD, a historian and scholar of social medicine whose Center for Medicine as a Profession will join the new department.

Dr. Charon is uniquely qualified to lead this new department. As founder of Columbia’s Program in Narrative Medicine—and creator of the field itself—she has made the teaching of narrative studies at Columbia University and particularly at the medical center a national and international model for how clinicians and trainees in all health care professions can comprehend and heed their patients’ complex experiences of illness. She has conducted research that shows the effectiveness of these programs on patient care and provider satisfaction. Through her leadership in narrative medicine, scholars of medical humanities and bioethics from around the world now look to Columbia for ways to strengthen this emerging field. As director of Columbia Commons IPE, she brings together all health professions schools in Columbia University for interprofessional education, and as director of the Virginia Apgar Teaching Academy for Medical Educators, she amplifies faculty development efforts in educational scholarship and research for P&S faculty.

Dr. Charon began her medical career as a general internist after receiving her MD degree from Harvard. She became a literary scholar and completed her PhD in English at Columbia in 1999, concentrating on the works of Henry James. Her research investigates narrative medicine training, reflective practice, and health care team effectiveness and has been supported by the NIH, the NEH, the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation, and several other private foundations. Her work in narrative medicine has been recognized by the Association of American Medical Colleges, the American College of Physicians, the Society for Health and Human Values, the American Academy on Communication in Healthcare, and the Society of General Internal Medicine. She has received a Kaiser Faculty Scholar Award, a Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Residency, and a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship. She also has received the Alma Dea Morani, MD, Renaissance Woman Award from the Foundation for the History of Women in Medicine and the National Award for Innovation in Medical Education from the Society of General Internal Medicine. She has published widely in leading medical and literary journals and is the author of “Narrative Medicine: Honoring the Stories of Illness” (Oxford University Press, 2006) and co-author of “Principles and Practice of Narrative Medicine” (Oxford University Press, 2017).