A different perspective on the medical humanities

Throughout high school and early in college, I was enticed to pursue formal study of the medical humanities. I believed that this interdisciplinary field would afford me immense practical value by improving my ability to tackle complex and interrelated issues associated with the human dimension of medical practice.

Although I still recognize that history, culture, philosophy, and behavior simply cannot be divorced from healthcare, I realize that I was trying way too hard to force the application of the strengths of these diverse disciplines into a medical context. I readily admit that becoming an excellent physician has always been my primary goal. But I was perhaps naively trying to fit these other fields somewhere within my greater pursuit and consequently issuing them subordinate rather than fully complementary roles.

Arguably, classroom instruction of the medical humanities misses the point. I assert that the most relevant social consciousness and aptitude needed to serve others as an excellent caretaker may be learned only from personal experience. Furthermore, I echo the movement of institutions of higher education like Rice toward increasing the number of opportunities for experiential learning. While I am excited about our new medical humanities minor, I find that the practicum component is considerably more valuable than the coursework (I’m not pursuing this minor though). For instance, my medical Spanish internship at Ben Taub this semester has been invaluable to my understanding of the patient’s experience at a public hospital. Having only committed eight hours thus far, I am confident nonetheless that I have learned more about how citizenship status, income level, language, and compassion influence quality of care than I could have in any number of classes.

An approach that overcommits to the interdisciplinary experience, in my view, dilutes the purity of age-old theories and classical examples of application within the humanities, social sciences, and arts. I wish I had taken more political science classes in college and challenged myself to think from a perspective completely external to my drive toward a medical career. Fortunately I am in a public policy course this semester and have the opportunity each week to assume the role of economist, politician, or activist when studying such diverse topics as women’s role in the Middle East and drug trafficking.

I respect all pre-medical students who choose to study a major within biology or chemistry, and I ultimately chose to do so myself, admittedly most out of convenience since there was considerable overlap with the course requirements for medical school. However, it’s extremely unfortunate that many are deterred from pursuing a completely different major because it lies beyond their immediate academic knowledge or approach for problem-solving and decision-making. Moreover, it has become a necessity to maintain near-perfect grades in order to get accepted into medical school, and the vast majority of students, including myself, have been disincentivized from taking academic risks that may jeopardize our admissions package. Only a few people know that I actually entered Rice as a political science major and was primarily deterred from continuing with a pre-law curriculum as a pre-med because it was extremely difficult to achieve the grades I needed. Performing well in these political science classes was challenging because 1) I couldn’t extract myself from the all-to-pervasive competitive environment and 2) I didn’t have the time or leniency to incur failure after failure as a result of struggling to study, solve problems, and make decisions from a completely new frame of thought. I hope I may have inspired some open dialogue about these issues with my honesty.

I end with an important consideration for anyone pursuing or practicing medicine. When I am a physician, I must be able to take a step back and stop “being the doctor.” We are biased when we study the medical humanities because the goal is most often to be more understanding as doctors. Certainly there are professional standards for maintaining the physician-patient relationship, but I believe we are the best caretakers when we humble ourselves before our patients and relate to their experiences from our own outside of medicine.

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