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Med Humanit. 2016 Jun;42(2):103-8. doi: 10.1136/medhum-2015-010827. Epub 2016 Feb 3.

In defence of utility: the medical humanities and medical education.

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Centre for Medical Humanities, Humanities Research Institute, University of Leeds, Leeds, UK Research Affiliate, Program in Placebo Studies, Harvard Medical School, Harvard University, Boston, USA.


The idea that a study of the humanities helps to humanise doctors has become a leitmotif within the field. It is argued that the humanities (especially, literature) help to foster insights beyond those provided by biomedical training. Healthy young medics, it is claimed, can thereby gain significant insights into patienthood, and obtain important skills that may be valuable for their professional life. But the instrumentality of the humanities is not the only justification proffered for its inclusion in medical curricula. In this paper I critically examine the two overarching justifications recurrently cited in the mainstream literature-namely, (1) the instrumental worth and (2) the intrinsic value of the medical humanities in educating doctors. Examining these theses (and focusing on the views of a leading medical humanities scholar) I show that the bifurcation into instrumental versus non-instrumental justifications is not supported by the argumentation. Instead, I find that the particulars of the supposedly intrinsic justifications amount to an unambiguously instrumental defence of the humanities. Contextualizing the present investigation to probe further, I describe a long history of debate about the role of the humanities in British education and find that it rests on unsupported dichotomies (utility vs non-utility, theoretical vs applied, educated vs trained). I conclude that the medical humanities' manifesto would be more intellectually honest and coherent, and provide a more robust defence of its value in medical education, if it chose to embrace a wholly instrumental rationale for its role.

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