Letter: Doctors order a dose of ethics (2)

June 15, 2001

Humanities complements the scientific approach to medicine. The relationship between doctor-patient and doctor-colleagues is a large element of medicine. Diagnostic, treatment, communication and ethical dilemmas exercise doctors greatly.

Medical humanities adds breadth to students' knowledge, skills and experience to help them tackle all these areas appropriately and well.

They are asked to reflect deeply on their values and those of society: as embodied in their own practice and through the study of such areas as literature, history and philosophy. I am not alone in hearing my students make comments such as: "This is the first time I have been asked what I think" and "this is the first time I have been asked what I feel".

Your feature made the error of claiming that all areas of medical humanities can develop empathy in doctors.

The approaches of certain medical humanities can help some doctors improve their "emotional intelligence" or empathy with patients and colleagues, but not all.

Reflective practice, using expressive and explorative writing, can enable doctors to explore and examine the most sensitive areas of their practice. They also help them to develop their understanding of inter-relationships and to clarify how they can manage them more effectively.

Reflective practice deepens empathy, communication and understanding. I point this out in the story of Ann and Clive, which is cited in the feature and is in my chapter for the book Medical Humanities .

We cannot claim that a study of the arts and humanities will develop empathetic, insightful and caring doctors. The Nazis, a deeply cultured people, are not good models.

Gillie Bolton
Research fellow in medical humanities
Institute of General Practice
Sheffield University

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