Want to be a Good Doctor? Study the Humanities

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Angira Patel is Assistant Professor of Pediatrics (Cardiology) and Medical Education at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University.  Yesterday the Pacific Standard published her piece, “To Be A Good Doctor, Study the Humanities.”  The subtitle of the article reads: “An emphasis on the humanities in medical school trains future doctors to become proficient in the social and cultural context of health care.”

Here is a taste:

A three-year-old was newly diagnosed with a brain tumor called a medulloblastoma. The pediatric oncologist, aware of the steep odds against the child’s survival, explained the diagnosis and counseled the family. The doctor performed a bone marrow biopsy while singing the alphabet to soothe the child. Eventually, she comforted the family when their child died, tears in her eyes. As a medical student who was new to witnessing death, I could feel the grief of both the family and the physician. Later, as a doctor in training, I actively cared for a child with congenital heart disease as he died of multi-system organ failure. Eventually, when I became the doctor in charge, I determined the treatment course and was responsible for guiding the conversation when a patient’s death was imminent.

Recently, I told these stories in an introductory undergraduate religion class that asked the students to consider how best to support a patient who is dying. Do you cry with the patient? Is it acceptable to be detached? Is it OK to resume your life and laugh a few hours later? Further: How, where, and from whom do you learn these skills? Most of the students were science majors and hoping to become doctors. They understood the general idea that how you experience death and dying changes over time, and is not the same process for everyone. But they also wanted to know what makes a good doctor.

As a philosophy major in college before medical school, I believe I learned what it means to be a good doctor equally from my humanities classes as from my science classes. Studying the humanities helps students develop critical-thinking skills, understand the viewpoints of others and different cultures, foster a just conscience, build a capacity for empathy, and become wise about emotions such as grief and loss. These are all characteristics that define a good doctor.

Read the rest here.