Inaugural Conference

April 4-6, 2019 at the University of Notre Dame

Just as humans are complex beings with biological, social, and spiritual dimensions, so modern biomedicine is a chimeric enterprise in that it is simultaneously and indivisibly technical, social and humanistic. Preparing students for a life of medical practice therefore requires much more than giving them a high standard of technical competence; it requires giving them the knowledge base and the analytical skills to understand medicine as a social, political, economic and cultural enterprise. It also requires giving them the space to reflect on the human meaning of a life in biomedicine.

Embracing this role in premedical education is both the responsibility of and an opportunity for the social sciences and the humanities.  This workshop brings together a diverse group of scholars and practitioners--historians, sociologists, theologians, literary scholars, surgeons, family medicine practitioners and administrators to discuss how the humanities and the social sciences can rise to this challenge. What should we be teaching the medical professionals of the future, when and how? And what kind of institutional and programmatic structures do we need to create to effectively support this type of interdisciplinary education?

The Reilly Center Program in Health, Humanities, and Society

This conference was held to launch the Reilly Center's new program in Health, Humanities, and Society. This program will consist of new courses within new Arts and Letters degree programs; enrichment and mentorship opportunities; special events and speakers; research fellowships for undergraduates and visiting appointments to bring faculty to Notre Dame; and research and event funding for affiliated Notre Dame faculty. The program is aimed primarily at pre-health students in Arts and Letters, but will be of interest to all students who wish to gain a better understanding of the nature of medicine, through the humanities, fine arts, and social sciences.

The Reilly Center Program, including this conference, is made possible by the great generosity of Joan Storozynski Coogan and Phil Coogan. We are very grateful for their extraordinary support of the Reilly Center.

Plenary sessions

How to Create Ethics for Monsters: Bioethics, Algorithms, and the Future of Medicine

Thursday, April 4
6:30pm, Eck Center Auditorium

Mark Dennis Robinson, Fellow, Petrie-Flom Center for Biotechnology, Health Law Policy and Bioethics, Harvard Law School and Assistant Professor, Health Care Ethics Graduate Program, Creighton University

In an attempt to convince drivers to stop for pedestrians crossing the street, urban planners suggested a provocative solution: In addition to ticketing motorists who fail to stop for pedestrians and providing additional education campaigns about stopping for pedestrians (which met limited success), planners imported crosswalk technologies.  In these systems, flashing lights embedded in the crosswalk pavement lit up as soon as individuals began crossing the street. Drivers that stopped for pedestrians rose dramatically. While for many this was evidence of successful urban planning, it represents something far more significant:  It reflected the power of moving beyond an ethics that relies on solely being a “good person.” In my newest project, I argue that we need to shift from a model of medical ethics that sees it as solely the stuff of personhood – of hearts and minds, of compassion and reason—towards one that sees values as something that must be embedded in the world around us. Rather than intervening in the self (alone), the humanities must also shift towards the design of values precisely outside the person, including and especially in systems. Yet, this is not some reductionist pep rally about how technologies fix all problems. Light-up crosswalk technologies have not eliminated all pedestrian deaths. Rather, the aim of systems in this case was to intervene precisely in areas where we are prone to moral failure. In a society where hurried drivers tend to ignore humans in crosswalks, the moral power of that system was in forcing drivers to pay attention to what really matters. In a context where technologies are thought of only in relation to their ethical messes, what happens when we turn our tools towards the aim of moral clarity?

Trust, Privacy, and Human Connection in the Age of Health Data Mining

Friday, April 5
5:30pm, Eck Center Auditorium

Kirsten Ostherr, Gladys Louise Fox Professor of English and Director, Medical Futures Lab; Rice University

Patients have derived great benefit from participating in online communities with others who share their illness experiences, yet those conversations rarely become part of formal doctor-patient communication. At the same time, patients’ online activities are generating troves of data that technology companies are mining for clinical insights. Increasingly, hospitals are also using big data analytics to guide patient care. How should doctors be trained for this emerging world of technologically-mediated care? What role might doctors play in translating data-driven recommendations to patients? And how will these new practices change the human dimensions of health care? This talk will explain why the emerging health data ecosystem poses a set of problems that humanities and social science researchers are uniquely well positioned to address.

Conference Materials

Speaker and Participant List
Conference Schedule


Besides the generosity of Joan Storozynski Coogan and Phil Coogan, we would like to acknowledge gratefully the support and sponsorship of the Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts (ISLA).