Penn State University  | College of Medicine |  Research |  George T. Harrell Library |  Medical Center |  Clinical & Translational Science Institute |  StudyFinder

Humanities and the Curriculum

Students attending the Penn State College of Medicine find humanities principles and content throughout the curriculum. With the oldest Humanities Department in a college of medicine in the country, humanism has been built into our history and woven into the fabric of our curriculum from our inception. From the moment our students start in the Profession of Medicine Course through to the last day of the 4th year, our goal is to produce compassionate, sophisticated physicians.

One student framed it this way,
The Penn State College of Medicine has been transforming passionate medical students into compassionate physicians since 1967!

Humanities – First Year

First 9 months

Profession of Medicine

This two week introductory course focuses on team work, resilience, identify formation, giving and getting feedback, and patient centered care.  Students are introduced to their cadaver and reflect on this seminal experience.  The two weeks ends with the White Coat Ceremony, sponsored by the Gold Humanism Society.


For the duration of our student’s education, they participate in one of four societies that includes medical students in all four years and are staffed by faculty with clinical and humanities backgrounds. These smaller networks of students commence clinical training in a supportive environment.

Patients as Teachers Project (PAT)

Recognizing that modern medical schools are structured to expose students to patients’ lives only through brief outpatient visits and inpatient stays, the patients as teachers project pairs students with patients in the community who have serious, complex chronic illnesses.  Students make home visits over 7 months to learn what it’s really like to live with a serious illness.  A subset of students elect to make documentary films about their patients and show these in a “video slam”.

Socio-Ecological Medicine

A required course in the first year, socio-ecological medicine explores the complex social factors that impact health in the United States.  This is a highly interactive course structured with 30 -45 minutes of a stimulus followed by small group work.  Students also make visit environments where the impact of environments on health is profound.


Humanities – Second Year

This course in the spring of the second year asks students to think, speak, reflect and write about the nature of the patient experience, human suffering, resilience, death and dying, and the role of physicians in medicine.  This is also a highly interactive course grounded in small group learning.  Our goal is hone critical thinking while raising awareness and appreciation for the myriad of challenges facing patients and professionals in the health care system.

Second 9 months –  Societies continues… 

Ethics and Professionalism

Simply being a kind person does not inoculate physicians from the complex bio-ethical challenges they face in practice.  This course provides students with a structural framework for understanding ethical dilemmas and practice in small groups addressing those challenges.  The meaning of professionalism is also deeply explored.



After the first 18 months of coursework, our students begin one of six clerkships.  A Humanities exercises extend throughout these clinical experiences.


Fourth year

In the fourth year of medical school, our students must choose one of 12 – 14 “Selectives”.  These are intensive, one month courses designed to delve more deeply into topics that integrate clinical knowledge and experience with humanities perspectives.  These courses include:

Jazz and the Art of Medicine:  A course that uses improvisation as a vehicle for understanding and practicing physician-patient communication

Graphic Storytelling (Comics) and Medical Narratives: This course was developed to show fourth-year medical students how graphics and text can be used to effectively communicate complex medical nar­ratives, and to help students develop their own stories into graphic depictions. research-opportunities/graphic-storytelling-medical-narratives/

Time Slips: TimeSlips is a creative, group-based storytelling project for persons with dementia. Since 2010, select fourth-year medical students have been trained to facilitate these storytelling sessions, and have visited Country Meadows, an assisted liv­ing home located off of the Medical Center campus, to conduct TimeSlips with residents at the facility’s locked “Neighborhood Connections” unit.

Learn more about TimeSlips at, and read a scholarly article reflecting on the experience of Penn State medi­cal students at­ly/2011/06/10/geront.gnr035.abstract?keytype=ref&ijkey=AngNBjfDcR cfYRI.

Photography and Medicine:  In this course, students learn to critically explore and create visual imagery. The role of photography in exposing the physical and emotional impact of war, poverty, or unsafe living conditions has been profound. Students take their own photographs, select photographers across continents to study, and explore and produce their own medically related photography narratives.


Permanent link to this article: