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Medical Humanities and Their Discontents: Definitions, Critiques, and Implications

Shapiro, Johanna PhD; Coulehan, Jack MD, MPH; Wear, Delese PhD; Montello, Martha PhD

Academic Medicine:
doi: 10.1097/ACM.0b013e3181938bca
Medical Humanities

The humanities offer great potential for enhancing professional and humanistic development in medical education. Yet, although many students report benefit from exposure to the humanities in their medical education, they also offer consistent complaints and skepticism. The authors offer a pedagogical definition of the medical humanities, linking it to medicine as a practice profession. They then explore three student critiques of medical humanities curricula: (1) the content critique, examining issues of perceived relevance and intellectual bait-and-switch, (2) the teaching critique, which examines instructor trustworthiness and perceived personal intrusiveness, and (3) the structural/placement critique, or how and when medical humanities appear in the curriculum. Next, ways are suggested to tailor medical humanities to better acknowledge and reframe the needs of medical students. These include ongoing cross-disciplinary reflective practices in which intellectual tools of the humanities are incorporated into educational activities to help students examine and, at times, contest the process, values, and goals of medical practice. This systematic, pervasive reflection will organically lead to meaningful contributions from the medical humanities in three specific areas of great interest to medical educators: professionalism, “narrativity,” and educational competencies. Regarding pedagogy, the implications of this approach are an integrated required curriculum and innovative concepts such as “applied humanities scholars.” In turn, systematic integration of humanities perspectives and ways of thinking into clinical training will usefully expand the range of metaphors and narratives available to reflect on medical practice and offer possibilities for deepening and strengthening professional education.

Author Information

Dr. Shapiro is professor of family medicine and director, Program in Medical Humanities and Arts, University of California, Irvine School of Medicine, Irvine, California.

Dr. Coulehan is senior fellow, Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics, Stony Brook University Health Sciences Center School of Medicine, Stony Brook, New York.

Dr. Wear is professor of behavioral sciences, Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine, Rootstown, Ohio.

Dr. Montello is associate professor, History and Philosophy of Medicine, University of Kansas School of Medicine, Kansas City, Kansas.

Correspondence should be addressed to Dr. Shapiro, Department of Family Medicine, Route 81, Bldg. 200, 101 City Dr. South, Orange, CA 92868; telephone: (949) 824-3748; fax: (714) 456-7982; e-mail: (

© 2009 Association of American Medical Colleges