Why Medical Students Should Study History

Anyone who reads The Way of Improvement Leads Home on a regular basis know that I am always interested in the way historical thinking skills translate into a variety of different occupations.  This, of course, is the primary reason why we started our “So What Can You Do With a History Major?” series.

Over at the blog of Oxford University Press, several prominent historians of medicine make a case for history in medical education.  Here is a taste:
Why are historical perspectives invaluable to physicians in training? For starters, it is critical that physicians today understand that the burden of disease and our approach to therapeutics have both changed over time. This is obvious to anyone who has spoken to their grandparents about their childhood, or to anyone who has looked at bills of mortality, old pharmaceutical advertisements, or any other accounts of medicine. The challenge is to have a theory of disease that can account for the rise and fall of various diseases, and an understanding of efficacy that can explain why therapeutic practice changes over time. A condition like obesity may well have a strong genetic component, but genetics alone cannot explain the dramatic rise in obesity prevalence over the past generation. New treatments come and go, only partially in response to evidence of their efficacy. Instead, answers to questions about changing diseases and treatments require careful attention to changing social, economic, and political forces—that is to say, they require careful attention to historical context.
In an underground surgery room, behind the front lines on Bougainville, an American Army doctor operates on a US soldier wounded by a Japanese sniper. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Medical knowledge itself–firmly grounded in science as it may be — is nonetheless the result of specific cultural, economic, and political processes. What we discover in the future will depend on what research we fund now, what rules we set for the approval of new remedies, and what markets we envisage for future therapies. History provides perspective on the contingency of knowledge production and circulation, fostering clinicians’ ability to tolerate ambiguity and make decisions in the setting of incomplete knowledge.
Ethical dilemmas in medical research and practice also change over time. Abortion has been criminalized and decriminalized, and is now at risk of being criminalized once again. Physician-assisted dying, once anathema, has lately become increasingly acceptable. History reveals the specific forces that shape ethical judgments and their consequences.
History can teach many other lessons to students and doctors, lessons that offer invaluable insight into the nature and causes of disease, the meanings of therapeutic efficacy, the structure of medical institutions, and the moral dilemmas of clinical practice. We have not done, and likely cannot do, rigorous outcomes research to prove that better understanding of the history of medicine will produce better doctors. But such research has not been done for many topics in medical school curricula, such as anatomy or genomics, because the usefulness of these topics seems obvious. We argue that the usefulness of history in medical education should be just as obvious.
Making the case for the essential role of history in medical education has the unfortunate effect of making the basic problem — of trying to cram ever more material into the curricula — even worse. Perhaps not every school has yet recruited faculty suited to teach the full range of potential lessons that history offers. But many schools do, and in others much can be done with thoughtful curriculum design. Just as medical school faculty work constantly to find room for new scientific discoveries, they can make space for the lessons of history, today.

3 thoughts on “Why Medical Students Should Study History

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  2. Ahh, ya gotta love the guy using the euphemism “physician assisted dying” instead of calling it physician assisted suicide. Maybe he should consider “physician assisted passing”. Gee.


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