Why the Medical Humanities?

By Stuart Munro, MD

Dr. Joanne Conroy, chief health care officer at the Association of American Medical Colleges, explains the name of this blog on the site’s home page:

“Academic medical centers and teaching hospitals are at a crossroads in redesigning our health care system and examining how they educate medical professionals … They are constantly engaged in building the next Wing of Zock as they seek to define a future that signifies hope.”

We have a new department in the School of Medicine at the University of Missouri–Kansas City (UMKC) that resulted from our own examination of how we educate medical professionals. The Department of Medical Humanities and Social Sciences is the result of the need we felt to create new avenues in the education of medical professionals. We were fortunate that Betty Drees, Dean of the School of Medicine, saw the value of focusing attention and resources on this area, which complements and enhances the basic and clinical sciences.

UMKC has a longstanding tradition of emphasis on medical humanities. In 1992, an Office of Medical Humanities was established through the generosity of benefactors Bill and Marjorie Sirridge, two physician faculty members who loved the humanities and believed in their value that they add to medicine. The first Sirridge Missouri Endowed Professor in Medical Humanities and Bioethics, Lynda Payne, PhD, RN, was appointed in 2008.

Engaging the humanities in the practice of medicine promotes a personal, emotional connection between physician and patient. It helps doctors see patients and their clinical care in new ways:

  • Physicians get to know patients in a deeper way. This can lead to improved quality of care; deeper emotional connections for patients have therapeutic value.
  • The field of medicine benefits from the addition of new knowledge.
  • Doctors experience a more meaningful practice.

Our curriculum requires all students to complete at least one course in medical humanities. An array of options is offered; the courses explore the interrelationship of medicine and art, literature, law, body image, war, film, and music. All are interdisciplinary and co-taught by physicians and faculty members from the College of Arts and Sciences and Conservatory of Music and Dance. The offerings have an international flavor; for example, the Medicine and Music course is offered every other summer in Austria, through partnership with a medical school in Graz.

Medicine demands rigorous intellectual work. For this reason, candidates for the field are carefully chosen for their intellectual capacity and their ability and willingness to work very hard. The medical humanities balance this capacity for intellectual activity and hard work with new ways of seeing and feeling that produce a more effective and satisfied physician and person.

Lisa Wong, MD, eloquently describes in her book, Scales to Scalpels, how physicians in the Boston area draw strength and satisfaction from nurturing their musical talent through participation in the Longwood Symphony Orchestra. If the practice of medicine is both an art and a science, then the humanities are an important part of its preparation. Many medical students and residents feel they must give up their arts interests and devote their lives to medicine. For me, an important goal of teaching the medical humanities is to help my students realize the value that their study brings to patient care and how it can enrich their experience of life and medical practice.

Munro Stuart—Stuart Munro, MD, is the Chair of the Department of Medical Humanities and Social Sciences in the School of Medicine at the University of Missouri–Kansas City. He can be reached at stuart.munro@dmh.mo.gov

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