Rice’s Medical Humanities Research Institute has transformational agenda

Rice University and the Texas Medical Center

Rice University recently launched its Medical Humanities Research Institute, the only institute in the United States and one of the few in the world that is solely dedicated to advancing translational research on human experiences of health and illness. The institute was created to transform how researchers, health professionals and policymakers understand the whole person at the heart of health care. The goal is to ensure that humanity is not forgotten in the rapid pace of medical advances, university leaders said.

Rice University amidst the Texas Medical Center
Rice University is located directly next to the Texas Medical Center.

“The Medical Humanities Research Institute builds on Rice’s reputation as a leading research university by maintaining a focus on excellent interdisciplinary research and scholarship; attracting external support from federal, industry, international and philanthropic sources; and fostering early-career scientists and scholars,” President Reginald DesRoches said. “It draws upon the university’s strengths across the academic disciplines and focuses on solving the biggest problems of our time in humanities and health care.”

Amid unprecedented technological and data-driven innovation in health care, the goal of the Medical Humanities Research Institute is to ensure that patients are seen as people in the context of healing, leaders said. It will work to make health care more equitable and inclusive so that marginalized communities receive the care they need in a respectful and dignified form. It will achieve these aims by bringing humanists, artists and social scientists together with engineers, natural scientists and clinicians to address major global challenges that cannot be solved by science or technology alone.

Howard R. Hughes Provost Amy Dittmar, executive vice president for academic affairs and professor of economics and finance, shared the president’s enthusiasm for the new institute.

“The Medical Humanities Research Institute will play an important role in addressing the racial, gender and socioeconomic disparities that are prevalent in health care,” Dittmar said. “I look forward to seeing how patients benefit from the institute’s work, which puts human flourishing back at the center of how we think about and practice health care.”

The institute’s research priorities will be organized around four grand challenges in health care that build on the expertise of the faculty involved:

  • Inclusive engineering, design and data science for health with a special focus on responsible AI for health and anti-racist bioengineering device design
  • Arts in basic, clinical and public health research, focusing on music and neuroscience and digital storytelling
  • Health communication and clinical care at the bedside, emphasizing patient narratives
  • Health professions education, integrating research on the technological transformation of health care for 21st century learners

The institute is led by Kirsten Ostherr, the Gladys Louise Fox Professor of English, and it builds on her work as director of Rice’s medical humanities program.

Kirsten Ostherr
Kirsten Ostherr​​​​​

“The Medical Humanities Research Institute will expand the visibility and the activity of faculty and students at Rice in medical humanities research,” Ostherr said. “One of the outputs of the institute will be strengthening ties with our existing collaborators, both in the Texas Medical Center and with community-based organizations.”

For Ostherr, the launch of the new institute represents a paradigm shift.

“It puts the focus completely on the unique questions that humanities research brings to this interdisciplinary field and emphasizes the importance and impact of that research,” Ostherr said. “The institute will make a distinctive contribution by providing expertise on the cultural and ethical issues that define human experiences in health care but are often left unaddressed. We will extend the work happening at Rice and move beyond the campus, and this translational approach will define our collaborations with local and international partners.”

The introduction of this institute also represents a widening of Rice’s own research efforts since the majority of its institutes that report to the Office of Research are grounded in STEM fields.

“The launching of the Medical Humanities Research Institute is a real statement to the world on the part of Rice that the humanities are bringing something vital and necessary that is missing from biomedical research paradigms and is worth investment,” Ostherr said.

Ostherr also mentioned that research in the humanities is often single-researcher focused, but medical humanities presents myriad prospects for collaborative research.

“The institute provides a great opportunity for faculty who aren’t very familiar with the collaborative approach to gain new skills and diversify the experiences and knowledge sets within their work,” she said.

To learn more about the Medical Humanities Research Institute, visit mhri.rice.edu.