Why studying Milton and Plath might make you a better doctor

Dr Jacob Edmond

I coordinate a University of Otago English paper, ENGL131: Controversial Classics, which is an approved eighth paper for Health Science First Year. As I posted on the course Facebook page, ENGL131 fosters the skills that a recent report suggests are the best predictors of success in the health professions: critical thinking, analysis, and communication.

John Milton and Sylvia Plath
John Milton and Sylvia Plath

The report to which I refer is the 2015 review of the Health Science First Year programme at the University of Otago. The report is not a public document, but the point that I cite is hardly top secret. The authors note that “critical thinking, communication skills, and human interaction . . . seem to be the best predictors of success in the health professions.” While it is difficult to design studies that provide a quantitative measure of the effect of these skills on clinical practice in the health professions, there is increasing recognition of and evidence for the role of critical thinking, communication, and “human interaction” skills such as cultural competency in successful clinical practice.[1] Moreover, at Otago, research from the Department of English and Linguistics has demonstrated a very strong correlation between competency in written and spoken English and success in the Health Science First Year programme.[2]

Such research risks stating the bleeding obvious: we need doctors who can reason effectively, who can read and write competently, and who know how to communicate with their patients—whatever their background. They need to be able to make sound judgements based not just on clinical evidence (x-rays, CT scans, etc.), but also on a careful, attentive, and culturally sensitive assessment of their patients.

The need might be obvious, but trouble arises when conclusions are drawn about training and ongoing professional development for health professionals. For some, a gap in the training of health professionals can only be rectified by one thing: more professional training, which means less time for students to explore other interests.

My proposed solution is quite different but to me—as a teacher of English literature—equally obvious: we need more humanities training for health science students. “Critical thinking, communication, and human interaction” are core humanities skills. The humanities emphasise careful judgements based on the weighing of written and oral evidence, an ability to interpret texts and statements in their cultural and historical context, and a mode of thinking that addresses ethical and moral values as well as truth values. For example, students in ENGL131: Controversial Classics learn to make difficult ethical and interpretative judgements about texts that deal with complex issues concerning gender, violence, racism, mental health, and sexuality. These are skills that students can and do apply to any field of endeavour, but they are essential to successful clinical practice.

Many colleagues who work as clinicians or researchers in the health science field share my view. Like me, they recognise the value of humanistic training and inquiry to medicine. Indeed, when a review of the Health Science First Year programme at Otago was conducted last year, several of these colleagues wrote impassioned letters calling for students to be allowed to take a greater range of courses from across the university, including from the humanities.

As the Otago Daily Times reported recently, the Humanities Division at the University of Otago is facing cutbacks as a result of a drop in student enrolments. At the same time, First Year Health Science enrolments continue to trend upwards. Some might take this to be a story of winners and losers. I, however, see the relationship between humanities and health sciences as offering remarkable opportunities for synergy. We need doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, midwives, and other health professionals with the skills that the humanities provide. At the same time, we need humanities scholars and social scientists who understand the health sciences. The University of Otago has the opportunity to be a world leader in the training of health professionals, if it is able to combine its strengths in the humanities, sciences, and health sciences, rather than favouring one at the expense of the others. It is not a zero sum game: we can all be winners if we work together.

[1] E.g., M. Leonard, S. Graham, and D. Bonacum, “The Human Factor: The Critical Importance of Effective Teamwork and Communication in Providing Safe Care,” BMJ Quality and Safety 13 (2004): i85-i90; Arno Kumagai and Monica Lypson, “Beyond Cultural Competence: Critical Consciousness, Social Justice, and Multicultural Education,” Academic Medicine, 84, no. 6 (June 2009): 782–87; Karen Mann, Jill Gordon, Anna MacLeod, “Reflection and Reflective Practice in Health Professions Education: A Systematic Review,” Advances in Health Sciences Education 14 (October 2009): 595–621.
[2] Michael Cop, “Can the English Diagnostic Test Predict a Student’s Future?” Department of English and Linguistics Seminar Series, University of Otago, 20 May 2016.

See also: How my BA Degree prepared me for a career in health


Dr Jacob Edmond: Jacob Edmond is Associate Professor of English at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand.

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