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A Case for Humanities in Medicine

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When I was in college, any time I mentioned to someone that I was an English major, I would almost always hear, “Oh, so you want to teach?” At which point I would explain that no, I was in fact also premed and I planned to go to medical school. On the advice of one of my mentors in the premed program, I had chosen a major that interested me and would still allow me to fulfill the science class requirements. After college, when I decided to pursue a physician assistant degree and started interviewing at programs, one interviewer looked at my transcript and told me, “PA school won’t be like taking an English class.” Experiences like these made me feel that my English background was something that needed to be explained or justified, and that I needed to brush past this part of my transcript to point out all the science prerequisites I had completed. Even after completing my degree and starting work as a PA, I didn’t always share my background with my colleagues because I felt I would have to explain it away.

Despite feeling self-conscious about my unconventional route to a career in medicine, I felt that my training in literature benefited me in my studies and later in my medical practice. I enjoyed the writing assignments that my fellow PA classmates dreaded, and although I had to learn to abbreviate my medical notes, I received compliments that they were well written.

Several years later, validation came in the form of a report from the AAMC, which publishes data every year on U.S. medical school acceptance rates based on undergraduate majors. The report found that of the number of humanities majors who apply to medical school, a higher percentage are accepted than their STEM counterparts. STEM majors still make up the majority of medical school applicants, but this study is thought provoking, especially considering that humanities programs are being closed nationwide due to perceived lack of interest or practicality.

So what advantage does a humanities major give to medical school applicants, and what are the implications for the programs they come from?

Dr. Rita Charon, founder and chair of the Narrative Medicine department at Columbia University School of Medicine, holds a PhD in English as well as her medical degree, and she is a longtime advocate for studying the humanities. She co-authored an article in Academic Medicine that argues that “narrative training can deepen the clinician’s attention to a patient and can help to establish the clinician’s affiliation with patients, colleagues, teachers, and the self.”

She has also written several books about implementing narrative medicine in the medical school curriculum and gives her students assignments in reading literature and creative writing in addition to their science studies. Neuroscientific research supports Charon’s conclusions; this study, for example, shows that reading works of fiction is associated with increased empathy, a valuable skill for working in the medical field.

Practicing medicine well requires an understanding of human nature. A medical practitioner's intimate knowledge of genetic mutations that cause abnormal cell division does not help them explain to a patient that they have cancer. Studying the humanities involves exploring what it means to be human, which provides valuable insight for any profession, but especially medicine. A literature assignment that introduces a diverse perspective and different ideas may help a medical practitioner better understand their patient who comes from a different background and improve their communication with them.

Despite the importance of the study of humanities, according to this article in the New Yorker, enrollment in humanities programs has declined nationwide by 17%. The article cites a number of reasons for this statistic, with two primary reasons being a lack of interest and a lack of perceived value in a humanities degree. Given these disheartening statistics, we need more advocates like Dr. Charon to emphasize the importance of studying the humanities, if for no other reason than to learn how to be better humans. We might also develop hybrid degrees, such as writing in engineering, or the philosophy of IT, in order to incorporate humanities teaching into STEM curricula. At the very least, we can encourage English majors practicing medicine by reminding them that they are a valuable asset to the profession, and the skills they learned in their studies prepared them to be more empathetic and insightful providers.

Did you have a non-traditional major? Share in the comments.

Hillary McDonald is a urology PA practicing in southern Maryland. She enjoys learning about random trivia, especially if it's related to medicine, and any activity that takes her outdoors. Recently she was crazy enough to run her first 50k race, and she's looking for the next challenge.

Image by Alphavector / Shutterstock

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