Why Humanities in Medicine?

The humanities cover liberal arts topics related to the human condition, including history, literature, fine art, philosophy and ethics. As per Standford University, they teach us to ‘‘think creatively and critically, to reason, and to ask questions’’.

Further, according to Dr. Pippa Hall, “Through a humanities-based perspective, learners can reflect on the impact of their personal and professional relationships with patients and families, while appreciating the rich backgrounds and histories held within each patient and family member. The humanities support a holistic and person-centered approach to care, and provide learners with new lenses through which to interact with clinical team members to better understand their own roles and those of others. Through the development of relationships, the humanities encourage learners to interact with and better understand patients and families as unique and holistic beings.”

 The role of the humanities in general in medical education, especially with regard to the CanMEDS competencies, is important in at least five areas:

  1. The humanities foster the development of humanistic competence through reflective and reflexive thinking, advanced analytical abilities and increased appreciation for the perspectives of others. These qualities are essential for the CanMEDS collaborator, communicator, health advocate and clinician roles.
  2. Philosophical reflection fosters the examination of our beliefs and of our values. Proposed important roles of philosophy in medical education include acquiring a critical view of our assumptions, broadening of our perspectives to improve our ability to make sound judgment, fostering tolerance and avoiding dogma as well as cultivating empathy. There is evidence that medical students are easily confounded by bias and unsound arguments, thus demonstrating the need for ways to promote critical reflection. Philosophy can therefore play an instrumental role in medical education by enabling better clinical judgment and critical thinking, important in all the CanMEDS roles.
  3. Relationships, especially therapeutic relationships, are central to patient care, and they are relevant to all the CanMEDS roles. They also work effectively in our health care system. Narrative competence is essential to the establishment of these relationships. Students need to appreciate that their patients’ stories matter. They must be able to listen, acknowledge, absorb, interpret and be moved to action by the stories they hear.
  4. The role of science is to reduce the mysterious to the known. Being trained in the sciences, our students can sometimes lack confidence in dealing with the uncertain, the unknown. However, this is often the reality of medical practice. The humanities, especially the arts, improve students’ tolerance for ambiguity; they improve reflective skills and improve self-awareness. These qualities are particularly relevant to the role of medical professional and person.

The humanities are interdisciplinary by nature, and enhance interprofessional and interdisciplinary awareness. Using the humanities to learn together can break down power differentials inherent in health science disciplines/professions and can help reconcile different world-views based on shared values. This awareness is relevant to all roles, but especially that of collaborator.

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