Thursday, October 29, 2009


I’ve been asked to help organize a “literature-in-medicine” course for a medical school. That doctors relate to patients more compassionately when they’ve been tutored in the humanities is a notion so obviously valid that many schools have already adopted such programs. In New York, Mount Sinai School of Medicine conducts an art appreciation course. Yale, Stanford, and Cornell offer similar curricula. The University of Minnesota even features a Center for Spirituality and Healing.

There’s one huge hurdle in teaching this subject, though. I came across it forty-five years ago, when I took the humanities course my medical school offered. It was incredibly progressive for its time. We read some of the classics, attended art history slide shows and talks on classical music...and it was totally lost on me.

Look: I was a kid. I hadn’t been out in the world much. Aside from birth and adolescence, I hadn’t sipped life’s other sacraments. Marriage, children, suffering, aging, and death were only abstractions to me. What was real was the microbiology final I needed to study for.

Things haven’t changed much. Despite the humanities’ subtle incursions into medical education, the primary and almost exclusive focus remains hardnosed, objective science. A few years ago, on a whim, I visited Dr. Eric Cassell in his Brooklyn home. Dr. Cassell is an emeritus professor of medicine and public health, author of The Nature of Suffering, and widely considered the grandfather of the movement to augment compassion in healthcare. I asked him whether he thought his goal might be attained during his lifetime. He chuckled, looked me up and down, and asked me how old I was. I told him. He chuckled again, and said, “Not in your lifetime, either.”

Ah, well. Still, we must do what we must do.

So here’s my current Burning Question to you: as we teach humanities to medical students, how can we convince them of its central, undeniable relevance to their life’s work? Operators are standing by.

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