With a resolute passion for training well-rounded health care leaders, Helen Valier’s primary expertise isn’t in science, but instead medical humanities. So, does she read poems to future doctors and nurses in class? Not exactly. As director of the Medicine & Society Program at the Honors College, she guides undergraduate students on an exploration of the intersection between science, arts and humanities.

The mission is to develop a more humanistic and compassionate practice of medicine and an informed health policy through enhanced problem solving and communication.

In science, she said, students often think there’s only one right answer based on fact. But working with real patients and problems can be more complicated. Research suggests that improving empathy improves decision-making and reduces dissatisfaction of both patients and providers.

“Understanding the human situation as it relates to a patient’s personal, economical and cultural circumstances encourages an openness and flexibility in decision-making when the answer isn’t always clear,” said Valier.

It’s a patient-centered, team approach often lost in today’s fragmented, highly specialized American medical system that’s led to a shortage of primary care physicians. Valier believes there’s too much focus on disease as a biological problem and not enough focus on health and the influence of societal factors.

“Pain or disease reduced to physiological process lets clinicians target certain areas with pharmaceuticals. But placing more emphasis on suffering changes the dynamic. Now you’re a healer looking at a patient as a whole person.”

Several years ago, the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) started including more social and behavioral health components, marking a shift in expectations for future doctors. The UH Medicine & Society Program started in 2005 with just eight students but has grown into one of the most popular degree plans on campus. With more than 500 students, UH has one of the largest medical humanities undergraduate plans in the country.

“This program isn’t anti-science at all, but it’s necessary to think creatively while considering different perspectives to solve the many challenges facing our health care system today.”