‘How on earth will the medical humanities make you a better doctor?’

Emily T. Troscianko on the Centre for Medical Humanities blog:


Image credit: Gerrit Dou, The Dropsical Woman (detail), c. 1663

It was a surprise, and a fairly depressing one, especially given how much interest philosophical questions of ethics in the medical domain elicited in this session, when various remarks and anecdotes from the students began to make clear just how little respect the clinical world has for the medical humanities. One student who’d taken an intercalated course in medical humanities after her third year told us how, on her first fourth-year placement, only one of all the anaesthetists she’d told about it had responded in the least bit positively, and one had even tried to make her look foolish in front of a surgeon by asking her to tell him what subject she’d chosen (hey, this’ll make you laugh: guess what she chose?!). The consensus seemed to be bafflement (with or without a bit of ridicule thrown in): why on earth would you choose the medical humanities – how is it going to make you a better doctor? And the more profound disappointment was that, after a year of studying it to degree level, all the student herself could say was, well, it had been a useful grounding in the history of medicine, had made her generally better educated and well rounded, but to be honest it hadn’t really been directly useful.

This sounds to me like a call to arms – softly spoken, perhaps, but one we need to recognise and act on. If a highly motivated and intelligent medic chooses to spend a year devoting herself to the medical humanities, don’t we need to make sure she comes out of it not saying something polite about being a more rounded individual now, but inspired and energised by all the ways it’s going to contribute directly and indirectly to her future professional practice?

Maybe with this in view we need, for a start, to dare to say that critiquing stuff isn’t all we do…We can use our detailed understanding of how poetry and prose work to set up a programme that has direct and demonstrable benefits for women prisoners (Robinson and Billington 2013), or work with a national charity to enhance our understanding of how eating disorders may be affected by reading fiction. We can use our expertise in phonetics and linguistics to design a mobile app for screening and monitoringdisorders affecting speech. We can collaborate with the Royal Society of Medicine to bring theological and philosophical insights on compassion to bear on healthcare practice . And these are just four projects I happen to know about or be involved in, mostly happening right on my doorstep in Oxford.

Read the full piece here.