To Be a Good Doctor, Study the Humanities


In this piece forĀ Pacific Standard, Angira Patel discusses the role that studying the humanities can play in helping doctors become more empathetic and culturally sensitive toward their patients.

“As a philosophy major in college before medical school, I believe I learned what it means to be a good doctor equally from my humanities classes as from my science classes. Studying the humanities helps students develop critical-thinking skills, understand the viewpoints of others and different cultures, foster a just conscience, build a capacity for empathy, and become wise about emotions such as grief and loss. These are all characteristics that define a good doctor.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recently released aĀ reportĀ arguing for the integration of STEM with the arts and the humanities. Given the projectedĀ increaseĀ in STEM jobs, the need for a workforce to fill them, and the prospect of a well-paying job, it’s not surprising that students are encouraged to pursue STEM fields.

At the same time, the important role of humanities in medicine is emphasized in scores of programs in the United States and around the world, includingĀ Stanford University,Ā Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, theĀ University of Californiaā€“San Francisco, andĀ King’s College London. Meanwhile, some medical schools areĀ reworkingĀ their curricula, and peer-reviewed journals such asĀ Medical HumanitiesĀ and theĀ Journal of Medical HumanitiesĀ publish work that emphasizes the importance of the humanities for doctors.”


  1. A number of years ago some medical schools began requiring their students to take classes in the Humanities. They were met with a great deal of resistance to this on the part of their students. I believe that everyone, no matter what your major in college, should be well-rounded in their education. Part of the problem with education in the United States today is that we specialize and narrow things down to just certain subjects. People end up being great mathematicians and chemists and scientist or whatever but can’t carry on an intelligent conversation concerning history or philosophy or anything else. They are lacking in knowledge and can’t beat their way out of a wet paper bag to hold an intelligent conversation to save their lives.

    I myself was a student in the College of Agriculture with a major in Dairy Science. Every semester when it came time to sign up for classes I had to make a twice yearly visit to the dean of my college and I had to defend my decision to take Humanities classes for my electives instead of agricultural classes. He stated that I should be choosing my elective hours in nothing but Agriculture and I strongly disagreed. He eventually would give in but was never happy about it. I’m really glad now that I stuck to my guns and got a well-rounded education.

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    • I have no idea how many of the medical schools that tried this are still requiring some education in the Humanities. My suspicion is that this went by the wayside because they got so much flack from the students, our wonderful and dear future doctors that we’re having to deal with these days.

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