Medical Humanities and Professionalism: Teaching Students to Balance Between Patients’ Interests and Physicians’ Duties

  • Jan 22, 2018
  • By Daniel Moses

By: Dr. Malpe Surekha Bhat


Although medical school curricula has always embraced and appreciated the need to train students to be compassionate towards patients, medical education in recent times has imposed a mandate to include medical humanities as a structured course in medical curriculi. Concomitantly, recent concerns about the need for Professionalism as a competency in medical curricular goals have led to the development of a professionalism charter consisting of a set of professional responsibilities for the practising physician. Introduction of these two new courses in medical schools has not been an ‘easy to handle’ change for medical teachers who have two ends of a spectrum to teach, or for medical students who are still pots in the making. While medical humanities are anchored on roots, Professionalism is anchored on rules – roots of timeless human values, rules of time-dependent measurable behaviours.


Medical humanities open the doors to viewing medicine through the lenses of literature, social sciences, art, history and philosophy. Professionalism streamlines the vision towards a singular focus on polished behaviour forming the environment for inculcating humanistic attitude and critical thinking skills. Medical humanities train a medical student to expand into infinity during his/her journey towards becoming a doctor. Professionalism creates awareness about the need to hold on to behaviouristic finiteness while encountering patients or patient families. Medical humanities tap and develop the tendency of naturalism in medical practitioners; Professionalism grooms them into leaders of formalism. In this context, medical humanities can question the meaning of professionalism (and unintentionally, its virtues) and vice-versa.


Thus, the need of the hour is a change management strategy by medical teachers to understand and explain that teaching or learning in a medical school is not any different from teaching or learning Math – a Math which anchors on to finite numbers to appreciate the importance of the infinite numbers present between every two consecutive finite numbers. While a patient at the receiving end needs an infinitely thinking physician to touch his/her disturbed emotions, he/she also needs that the physician confine himself/herself within the limits of formalistic finiteness to restrict the disturbance of emotion from blowing into infinity. While professionalism requires that a doctor adhere to the protocol of distributing his/her time fairly to all patients in need, medical humanities require that the doctor justify that a patient in greater distress is a patient in greater need (the distress here not confined to definitions of the majority behaviour).


As a faculty serving the XUSOM curriculum committee, my fundamental contention here is that both the newly launched courses can fly towards infinite dimensions if teachers and students in transition work as a team within a medical education framework. They could thus assist each other in allowing the courses to grow for the making of ‘gen next’ doctors whose modern formalism grow widespread open-minded branches on the roots of ancient naturalism!

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