At the University of Sydney medical students can undertake elective studies in the medical humanities, but this has not always been the case. A new program, at the master’s level, has been designed to redress the balance between medical “training” and a true education. This new master’s program began with a chance conversation between colleagues across the Faculties of Medicine and Arts, remarking on the apparently disproportionate representation of doctors among “humanities practitioners” and “humanities consumers.” We wondered whether the Australian education system, which until quite recently took medical students straight from high school into a narrowly focussed six-year degree program, might be responsible for the apparent hunger among medical graduates for a more broadly based education. (It is less than a decade since some Australian medical schools, the University of Sydney included, changed to a graduate-entry system, similar to the North American system, allowing premedical students to obtain a broader education before committing to the medical degree.) The idea of a master’s degree had such strong appeal that we both became determined to see it through to implementation.
When we advertised the new program in our medical alumni newsletter, we were delighted by the response. A retired professor of medicine from a large teaching hospital decided that this represented an important opportunity “to keep the neurons in working order.” Psychiatrists, oncologists, pediatricians, and family physicians also applied. The program has also attracted nurses, social workers, sociologists, a schoolteacher, an artist, and a medical student. The Faculty of Arts coordinates contributions from the faculties of Medicine, Science, Law and others. We have philosophers, historians, sociologists, medical academics, public health physicians, and specialists in English and Italian literature. We hope in time to include faculty from additional departments in the Faculty of the Arts.
In designing the master’s degree in Medical Humanities, our aim has been to help students to integrate insights garnered from history, law, medicine, philosophy, literature, and the social sciences so that they feel better able to engage in contemporary debates as well as consider the many social, artistic, political, and philosophical issues that have traditionally surrounded medicine and health care. The core unit is an introduction to the medical humanities that ranges across three main seminar themes: The Culture of Medicine, Medicine and History, and The Human Experience of the Body and Illness. The second core unit on research methodology is particularly designed for medical graduates embarking on medical humanities research for the first time. It deals with social research techniques and practices and prepares students to undertake an independent study unit. Examples of the many elective courses drawn from across all faculties are History of Science; Deconstructing Medicine; Professional Communication; Death, Dying, and Mourning; Health, Culture, and Gender; and Policing Bodies: Crime, Sexuality, and Reproduction. Courses in bioethics from a master’s degree in Bioethics will be cross-listed with the Medical Humanities program next year. Assessments are by seminar presentations and essay papers.
The Medical Humanities Program offers a wonderful opportunity to indulge one’s curiosity and interest in the links between science, technology, medicine, the arts, humanities, and social sciences. Apart from the intellectual benefits for students in the program, this kind of cross-faculty development facilitates (1) the promotion of interdisciplinary collaborative research across the University; (2) contact between medical students and graduates with shared interests in the medical humanities; and (3) the identification of potential teachers in the medical humanities electives program for medical students.
University of Sydney, Faculty of Medicine
Length of medical school program: Four, five, or six years, depending on students’ incoming level of education (see below), the program at Sydney is four-years long, but other Australian medicals schools offer four-, five-, and six-year programs.
Level of education required for admission: High school degree or above. Postsecondary students go into the longer five- or six-year programs; students who have bachelor’s degrees or higher go into four-year programs. Until 1996 most students at Australian medical schools entered directly from high school.
Average number of students who matriculate each year: About 240
Average number of students who graduate each year: About 230
Cost of medical education per student: Australian students pay around 18,400 AUD (12,437 USD) “upfront” or 24,540 AUD (16,587 USD) if they defer payment until after graduation. Australia also has a national Higher Education Contribution Scheme which provides an interest-free loan with deferred, income-contingent repayment.
Number of medical schools in Australia: Eleven, but a new school is opening soon in Canberra, the capital city.