Beyond “Dr. Feel-Good”: A Role for the Humanities in Medical Education

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Although educators embrace the values that are nominally included in the idea of “the art and science of medicine,” the arts and humanities have remained at the edges of medical education. One reason for this exile is the overwhelming emphasis in the curriculum on biomedical science over the social sciences and humanities. Other causes are self-inflicted—a frequent lack of theoretical rigor in the design of educational offerings and, more important, no clear answer to the question of how the humanities can make better physicians. A common justification for including the arts and humanities in medical education—that spending time with literature, music, and the visual arts contributes to student and faculty reflection and well-being—is compelling; however, it risks further marginalizing the field as a soft, feel-good supplement to training.

In this Invited Commentary, the author proposes several unique ways in which the arts and humanities contribute to the development of physicians who practice with excellence, compassion, and justice.

These ways include disrupting taken-for-granted beliefs and assumptions; introducing a pause in perceiving, thinking, and acting; encouraging engagement with complexity and ambiguity; seeing past the surface to historical and societal influences and causes; and encouraging an awareness of the multiple, unique voices and perspectives of patients. Ultimately, the humanities prompt awareness of the space in which physicians care for human beings in their moments of greatest need and bear witness to fundamental changes in their patients and in themselves.

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