Dr Ruth Cunningham
Wherever the art of Medicine is loved, there is also a love of Humanity.”
When I was finishing high school in the early 1990s and considering what to do next, several teachers and friends of my parents suggested that studying medicine might allow me to balance my interests and aptitudes in both art and science subjects, as well as offering a multitude of rewarding career opportunities.
And so I enrolled at Otago, hoping to be accepted to medical school, but wanting to keep my options open and excited by the opportunity to try new disciplines such as philosophy. In my first year I was able to study medieval history, modernist literature, epistemology and logic alongside the compulsory papers required. Other potential doctors around me studied anthropology, psychology, mathematics, Māori, even law.
I found the small classes in the Humanities Division gave me a completely different experience from the large classes in biology and chemistry filled with other prospective medical students. Even though the classes were very much smaller than the current first year health sciences classes, there was very limited real contact with the people teaching me. Humanities classes gave me the opportunity to learn to construct an argument and think critically, and have given me invaluable reasoning and writing skills which have stood me in good stead through my career as a clinician and now working in public health as an academic. These are skills which I found limited opportunity to develop and extend during my time as medical student.
But perhaps we should not just be thinking about the ‘me’ that got into medical school and the value of my humanities education for my life as a doctor. What about another ‘me’ that did not quite make the cut, and would have perhaps gone on to study philosophy and history? Or think of the ‘me’ that would have been put off the health sciences first year (HSFY) course as it currently stands, with so little opportunity to sample the wide offerings of the university, and hence never applied for medical school.
In our current first year health sciences course we have over 1000 students (and many more who enrol but do not complete the year): aspiring doctors, physiotherapists, dentists, pharmacists and medical laboratory scientists, many of whom will not gain admission to these courses. The HSFY course aims to provide grounding in the biological sciences, and can lead to degree programmes in this area. But not all these students will have come to their interest in health and healthcare through an interest in biology—they many have come through an interest in the human condition, in caring, in service to their communities. If we want to continue to attract such students to our professional programmes, and to give those who do not attain the very high marks currently required an opportunity to pursue their interest in the human condition, we need a HSFY course that can include study in our humanities departments. Such a course would provide opportunities to extend the horizons of those who will go on to be doctors and other health professionals, and opportunities to those who are not admitted to professional programmes to pursue other directions, whatever they may be. If we want to attract students to our HSFY courses who have an interest in the human side of health care, don’t we need to give these students the widest options if they do not get into medical school or other professional courses?
The current option of a single Humanities paper, extra to the requirements of the HSFY course is clearly inadequate.
As Jacob Edmond points out in Why Studying Milton and Plath Might Make You a Better Doctor, there is the potential for both health sciences and humanities to benefit from giving health sciences students exposure to the humanities. Having students who take an interest in the humanities but ultimately go on to become doctors and other health professionals can increase the numbers and diversity of students in first year humanities classes as well as potentially producing health professionals with a wider understanding of the human condition. Many bright students taking HSFY do not achieve the very high and competitive standards required for entry to professional programmes. To have them go on to study in the University’s Arts and Social Science departments is a very good thing for these departments, which currently have declining enrolments. If those who do not get into medicine or the other professional courses have not been exposed to other parts of the University in their first year then they are very unlikely to choose to study Philosophy or History or Economics for their subsequent degree.
And there is, as Jacob Edmond says, potential for synergy between our world class health sciences and humanities divisions, not only through utilising the strengths of the humanities departments in teaching our would-be health professionals, but also perhaps in utlising connections to our health sciences programmes in training social scientists and arts scholars. Could we have an undergraduate degree in medical humanities (or health and humanities), combining health sciences papers with currently offered papers in the history of medicine, medical anthropology, philosophy of science, bioethics, and perhaps new offerings such as a course in literature and medicine? Could we be giving our students other options for exploring an interest in health and humanity? Such a training could lead on to postgraduate courses in science communication, in public health, and in other areas where health and the humanities already meet.
There are a multitude of reasons why the opportunity to read Plath or Milton, or Plato or Tuwhare, is something we should not be denying our first year health science students.
Dr Ruth Cunningham is a Senior Research Fellow, Department of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington.