I recently read with interest an article in the Wall Street Journal by Laura Landro entitled Poetry, Painting to Earn an M.D.” In it, Ms. Landro details a new push by several medical schools (NYU, Brown,The University of Iowa…to name a few) to include humanities courses such as writing, arts and literature in their curriculum. The argument in favor of mandating these type of courses in a medical school curriculum is that many programs are striving to turn out more empathetic young physicians who are better able to listen to their patients.
I may be a bit cynical, but in my opinion medical school is not the time nor the place to be learning how to draw, sculpt or write prose. Do not get me wrong, I am a huge proponent of the arts…including writing, music, painting and sculpture. I love to write, that is why I have written so many journal manuscripts and surgery book chapters. My love for writing is part of the reason that I started my plastic surgery blog in the first place. However, there is a time and a place for people to learn these very important skills. That time and place is not during a very tight, very demanding…and very expensive medical school curriculum. Most if not all medical school rosters are loaded with some combination of the classic core subjects: gross anatomy, biochemistry, physiology, histology, pathology, pharmacology, statistics...and the list goes on. The educational criteria required of the average medical student are outrageous by most standards. However, they are necessary. They are necessary because most medical schools have to allow their students to learn the fundamental core knowledge base in two calendar years. Two years… because on day one of year three medical students begin their clinical rotations; interacting with patients face to face. When as a new medical student you write your first prescription it is probably more important to know the medication dose, mechanism of action, risk of interaction with other medications, and effect on your patient’s physiology, than it is to know how to paint your patient’s likeness on canvas.
I do not mean to diminish in any way the attributes that a great medical student should maintain: integrity, honesty, empathy, listening ability, & affability. As a physician and plastic surgeon in Los Angeles, these are essential skills. These are skills that I use every day when meeting a breast cancer patient, skin cancer patient, or burn victim for the first time. These are skills that many people learn early on; that some learn over the course of their lives. However, when I have a patient asleep on my operating room table while I am repairing their orbital floor or cheek bone fracture I feel that it is significantly more important that I know exactly where their optic and infra-orbital nerves are so that I preserve their function, than it is to understand the predicament that led my patient to getting punched in the face in the first place.