The Case for a Medical Humanities Minor
The pre-med track, consisting of a grueling set of requirements and high-pressured demands for specific extra-curricular activities, often leaves students feeling disconnected from their ultimate goal of becoming doctors. Over the course of spending three to four years enduring the pains of organic chemistry, calculus, and physics, it becomes tempting to perceive undergraduate education as nothing more than a series of boxes to check off, and the pressures of pre-med reduce the desire to heal people into a desperation to maintain a good GPA.
Personally, I’ve immensely enjoyed most of my hard science courses at YU; they’ve deepened my understanding of how the world works, piqued my interest in specific areas of medicine, and helped me establish a solid network of knowledge that I’m confident I can build upon in my future studies and career. However, I realized after my first year at YU that I was losing sight of what lay at the center of my interest in pursuing medicine: a desire to understand the human condition.
Knowing how to diagnose and treat illness is only a part of practicing medicine. Jack Coulehan, Professor Emeritus at the Center for Medical Humanities and Bioethics at Stony Brook University, claims that being a doctor “requires communication skills, empathy, self-awareness, judgment, professionalism, and mastering the social and cultural context of personhood, illness, and health care.” Stony Brook, along with many other schools, including Columbia, Yale, and Boston University, offers a medical humanities program to help students go beyond the physiology of medicine and understand the social, economic, political, and ethical influences on health and medicine.
The medical profession is changing at a rapid pace: doctors are becoming more specialized, Obamacare is changing how hospitals run, and new technologies such as genome editing and artificial organs are challenging doctors to confront new ethical dilemmas in their pursuit of providing health and satisfaction to their patients. By the time current undergraduate students enter the medical field, it will likely look vastly different than it does today. In addition to addressing developments in medical research and technology, our education should reflect the non-scientific factors that may influence our professions as well. Just like organic chemistry provides the basis for understanding how biological pathways and drugs function, medical humanities may lay a foundation for grappling with major problems that will face the medical profession in the future.
Yeshiva College already offers several interdisciplinary courses exploring the intersection between medicine and the humanities. One of my favorite courses I’ve taken so far at YU, Professor Daniel Kimmel’s Medical Sociology, explored topics like the history of the medical profession, the medicalization of deviance, and the constantly evolving jurisdiction of medicine. This course, more than any of the biology or pre-med courses I’ve taken at YU, shaped my perception of the field I seriously considered pursuing. Other courses, such as Bioethics, Health Economics, Medical Psychology, and Psychopharmacology - a new course coming to YC next semester - investigate the relationship between medicine and social sciences.
With YU’s new plan to revitalize minors, a Medical Humanities minor may not be so far off. The administration’s new approach to the core curriculum encourages students to supplement one or two interdisciplinary core courses with four or five other courses related to an area of interest. While a discussion of the changes (or lack thereof) to the core would require an entirely different article, the new system allows students to have more control over their education, which I believe is a move in the right direction. I can’t wait to see which new minors take shape over the next few years at YU, and I hope Medical Humanities will find a place amongst them.