Opinion | Will More Humanities Benefit Future Doctors?

To the Editor:

Re “A Dose of the Humanities,” by Molly Worthen (Sunday Review, April 11):

Having recently retired after over 40 years in medical practice, I disagree with Dr. Worthen’s view that medical students need more education in the humanities. In my experience, medical (and nursing) students tend to be among the kindest, most empathetic and most understanding people in any medical center.

The real problem comes years later: How do you keep “the system” (billing, charting, documenting, federal and state regulations, hospital committees, credentialing, malpractice, recertification, etc.) from beating it out of them?

Allan Bernstein
Rochester, N.Y.

To the Editor:

Molly Worthen is right on. As a teacher of medical students and undergraduates who aspire to go to medical school, I cannot count the number of times that students told me they wanted to become physicians because they loved science, and then, as first-year students, were surprised to learn that medicine is not science.

Before long they may discover the beauty of the “art of medicine” and the value of a broad education and experience for holistic healing of their patients, especially those who are “off the curve.” It helps negotiate the curves in life outside the white coat, too.

Sarah Hitchcock-DeGregori
Lenox, Mass.
The writer is professor emerita at the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

To the Editor:

We are distraught by “A Dose of the Humanities.” Medical students take humanities courses in college and will surely continue to appreciate pursuits such as literature, art and music in their lives. However, medical schools are already teaching less science than in past decades at a time when in fact there should be much more.

A warning to those advocating nontraditional medical school courses such as creative writing at the expense of science courses: When the next viral pandemic comes, instead of novel mRNA and viral vector-based vaccines in just one year, there will be more morbidity and mortality to write about.

Howard J. Worman
Carol E. Semrad
Dr. Worman is a professor of medicine at Columbia University. Dr. Semrad is a professor of medicine at the University of Chicago.

To the Editor:

I feel lucky that I went to a medical school where there was much more emphasis on the humanities than at others.

When I called families from the Covid-19 I.C.U. this winter, it mattered that I deeply cared about who the intubated and sedated patients were as humans. With one family, I chatted about their mother’s love of classical music. With another, a wife told me about her husband’s Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

I do wonder whether all doctors truly need an excellent humanities education and people skills, though. We might lose diversity and some brilliant folks if we choose only those medical students who like the humanities and who “like people,” as I do.

I have met some incredible doctors who have poor people skills or little interest in the humanities. While I read Tolstoy, they might be pushing neurosurgery or antibiotic development farther along through their research, leading to helping many more people than I could.

Over all, though, I feel that the trend for a humanities orientation in medical students is a very good thing. This is particularly critical as we become more and more interpreters of medical information and “decision-making guides” in an increasingly protocol-dependent and automated medical world. I just hope those with other gifts are still given opportunities to contribute, too.

Sean Legler
Minneapolis
The writer, a Harvard Medical School graduate, is an internist.

To the Editor:

I couldn’t agree more with Molly Worthen’s call for a more humanistic approach to caring for people. The osteopathic medical schools have been teaching this philosophy for more than 100 years. As an osteopathic-trained ob-gyn I use this philosophy in all my patient interactions every day.

Still, I see that some physicians treat patients as “disease states,” relying on tests for rigid diagnoses and treatments without understanding or caring much for context. Just a simple “how are you doing?” can be a powerful question if you really listen for the answer.

Gary J. Newman
Phoenix

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