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A & S News

The Art of Medicine

Sept. 28, 2009

This story by Rich Cook originally appeared in the spring 2009 issue of the Arts and Sciences magazine.

Many young people dream of being doctors. They dream of curing illness and alleviating suffering. They dream of the opportunity to help people.

But in the long years it takes to grow from a fledgling premed student to a practicing physicians, most students--and most premed programs--focus on the natural sciences of anatomy, biology and chemistry. They focus on the medical aspects of being a good doctor, of healing the physical ailments of their future patients.

In the midst of all the science, these students may find it difficult to maintain the passion for people that first attracted them to the profession.

"Most students are young and healthy," says Dr. Kay Toombs, associate professor emeritus of Philosophy. "They haven't experienced debilitating illness so it is difficult for them, as young doctors, to understand what patients are going through."

The Medical Humanities program, housed within the College of Arts and Sciences, is helping premed students find and strengthen their passion for people. The interdisciplinary program draws from philosophy and literature to help students understand the nature of illness and suffering from the patient's standpoint. By learning the difference between the patient's experience and the physician's perspective, Medical Humanities students learn to heal emotional pain along with the physical.

"The whole focus of my work," says Toombs, "has been to show the difference between the patient's experience and the physician's perspective."

A Cource in the Human Experience

The program is designed to give premed students an in-depth understanding of the human experience with illness, resulting in physicians who are fully able to care for their patients' well-being in addition to their wellness. Offered at the undergraduate level as both a major and a minor, the program is an alternative--an increasingly popular one--for premed students at Baylor.

"It is important for us to reach students before medical school so they have had the experience with literature and philosophy that shapes their understanding of the human experience," says Toombs.

The program began as a single course developed by Toombs and English Professor Ann Miller. To bridge the gap between medical science and medical art, Toombs and Miller designed an interdisciplinary course that would examine how illness affects the emotions and the spirit of the patient.

In teaching the course, they were joined by Dr. William Hillis, professor of Biology, who shared his experiences as a physician and contributed more knowledge on the clinical aspect of illness. Following the success of this course, class offerings were expanded to develop a minor in medical humanities, which then led to the establishment of the major in 2004.

The program has expanded into a comprehensive Medical Humanities program as more and more medical schools are actively seeking candidates who have a broad background in the humanities. Biology and chemistry are still an important knowledge base, but medical schools are realizing that candidates with an educational background in ethics, religion, philosophy and literature also make good doctors, doctors who are sometimes better able to connect with their patients.

Medical Humanities and Medical School

"You start from scratch in medical school anyway," said Dr. Michael Attas, part-time lecturer in the Medical Humanities program, practicing cardiologist and Assisting Rector at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Waco, "It comes at you much faster but most medical schools start with the very basics of biology and chemistry."

Most medical schools focus on the science of medicine and medical students spend their time studying anatomy, biology and chemistry and putting what they learn into practice in rotations, internships and residencies. There is typically little time for courses in philosophy or literature that help young doctors gain perspective on illness from the patient's point of view.

"That is why the Medical Humanities major and minor are so important," says Dr. James Marcum, professor of Philosophy and current director of the program. "At the undergraduate level, we can teach literature and philosophy and give the students a strong background in understanding more than just the science of medicine."

In the Syllabus...

The class work, says Toombs, sensitizes the students to different views on suffering and dying. This, in turn, gives them the ability to connect with their future patients and talk to them about what their illness means.

Courses include studies on the nature of the patient/physician relationship, literature and medicine, the economics of healthcare, death and dying, and biomedical ethics.

Each course, drawn from programs throughout the College of Arts and Sciences, is chosen for what it brings to the students and their future lives as physicians.

By reading great works of literature like Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" and Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried," a collection of stories about the suffering of young soldiers in Vietnam, students gain insight into what it means to suffer and what challenges an illness or a disability can bring to a patient's life. Students do more than read these works; they apply the philosophies found in these texts to modern ethical issues like stem cell research as well as employ thought exercises to envision themselves with disabilities such as being blind or confined to a wheelchair.

Preparing for Leadership and Service

The program is a perfect match for Baylor's mission, which prepares students for "leadership and service by integrating academic excellence and Christian commitment." Courses like bioethics not only examine the moral and ethical implications of medicine but also use Biblical principles that are the foundation of the moral and ethical boundaries of the medical profession.

In addition to the formal class work, students have an opportunity to attend an annual medical humanities retreat. At the retreat, students hear from and engage in dialogue with national speakers with backgrounds in healthcare and theology. Through a Lilly Foundation grant, students are able to go on medical missions overseas, gaining invaluable experience caring not just for the body but also for the souls of their patients. Thus, the combination of coursework and experiential learning makes the Medical Humanities premed students just as attractive as their science-major counterparts to highly competitive medical schools, if not more so.

And every year, the program is seeing an increase in student enrollment.

"We are attracting a different kind of premed student," says Marcum, "those who might have been biology majors but didn't want to study just the natural sciences."

That draw of students interested in the art and humanity of medicine is helping to grow this program.

Now in its fifth year, the program has 122 majors and 82 minors. Medical schools are recognizing that graduates of the program, whether with a full major or only the minor, make better candidates and become better doctors.

And 60 to 65 percent of Baylor University's Medical Humanities graduates are accepted into medical schools.

By the time students have completed the rich variety of courses in the Medical Humanities major or minor and have been accepted into medical school, they have a deeply ingrained understanding of what illness means to the patient. As they progress through the biology and chemistry courses in medical school and move through the various specialty rotations, internships and residencies, they will be better able to connect with their patients as human beings, not simply as manifestations of this or that disease.

After all, helping people is why most doctors dedicate so many years to the study of the science and the art of medicine.