Reflections on the humanities in medical education

Med Educ. 2002 Jun;36(6):508-13. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2923.2002.01225.x.


Background: In recognition of the views advanced by the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, this paper considers some of the implications for medical practice and, hence, medical education, of recognizing the human body as an 'intertwining' of the natural (or physical) and the existential (or experiential) - something which is taken for granted in ordinary experience, but which becomes the medium through which disease can manifest itself in illness and disability. Our condition is the condition of creatures of frail flesh. Perhaps because this 'intertwining' is taken for granted, we tend to overlook the extent to which it is metaphysically astounding, even though it constitutes the daily arena and phenomena of clinical medicine. Clinical medicine is, among other things, the routine intervention in this intertwining. This fact is largely discounted by biomedical science, which concentrates on 'the natural' at the expense of neglecting 'the existential'. Such neglect arguably underlies the perceived deficiencies in medical education that the GMC sought to redress in its landmark document Tomorrow's Doctors.

Proposal: If the humanities disciplines concern themselves with recording and interpreting human experiences, the 'medical humanities' do so for the human experiences of illness, disability and medical intervention. This paper argues for an integrated conception of the medical humanities, and for their incorporation into the core medical curriculum. The paper concludes by outlining a proposed core module in medical humanities, based around a syllabus divided not into the characteristic enquiries of constituent disciplines, but rather into groups of topics relating to key philosophical questions prompted by the 'intertwining' in embodied human nature.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Clinical Competence / standards
  • Curriculum
  • Education, Medical / methods*
  • Existentialism
  • Humanities / education*
  • Humans