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What Makes a Well-Rounded Healer: A Little Song…A Little Dance?

A century ago, medical students studied liberal arts in addition to medical subjects like anatomy. But, with scientific and technological progress (check out last week’s WCBA to hear what I mean), more and more courses like pharmacology and clinical medicine crowded out the medical school curriculum.

Recently, there's been a gradual recognition that what med students gained in scientific knowledge was lost in basic human wisdom. The famous Canadian writer Robertson Davies once told an audience at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore that physicians must balance between the ability to look at a disease and to see the patient who bears the disease. That morphed into the concept that both the sciences and the humanities are integral to medicine, and that's how the Humanities in Medicine Program at Dalhousie University came into being.

It has programs in art and the history of medicine. It boasts an annual Medical Mystery Novel. It's a 66-day contest in which students compete to build a clever mystery novel in 11 sentences. They've also got a music program complete with a musician in residence and a full chorus in which students join forces with members of the community. Plus, there's a male group of featured singers from med school called the Testostertones (aka the 'T-Tones') and a female group of called the Vocal Chords.

Recently, I attended a rehearsal of the full chorus as well as the Vocal Chords and the T-Tones -- both made up of first and second year med students. For some, it's the first time they've had a chance to sing. Others have sung or played professionally and have amazing voices. They have fun, but they take their performances seriously. Some bring the perfectionism you see in doctors to their music.

Much of the credit goes to a mentor of mine named Dr. Ronald Stewart, a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Dalhousie University who recently retired as Director of the Medical Humanities program Ron still runs the music program.

Ron is a true Renaissance man. Born in Cape Breton – where he learned to play bag pipes – he went to UCLA where he was one of the first physicians in the world to do a residency in ER medicine. He set up the ER residency program at the University of Pittsburgh. He was a medical adviser on several top-rated medical shows including shows like 'Marcus Welby' and 'Emergency'. At a time in his career when most MDs might have slowed down, Ron came back to Nova Scotia to be health minister. When he was offered the chance to become Director of the Humanities in Medicine Program at Dalhousie, he grabbed it.

Ron says there’s not a lot of scientific proof that medical students who indulge their interest in humanities become better physicians. At least not yet. But he points to a study showing that surgeons who study art appreciation become better surgeons because they develop better attention to visual detail. To Stewart, it's inevitable that more proof will come as more studies are undertaken.

I'm totally biased but I certainly believe in the concept. Back in medical school, I wrote for and appeared in ‘Daffydil’, the annual comedy revue put on by medical students at the University of Toronto. That was where I first heard an audience laugh at my jokes and where I caught the bug to write. If it weren't for that, I probably wouldn't be writing in this space.

For more on the Humanities in Medicine Program, listen to my ‘House Doctor’ column this week on your local CBC Radio One afternoon show. Or, check out the program’s web site at Dalhousie University.

As I was writing this blog entry, I received an email from Andrea Gauster. She’s a first year medical student at Queen's University and an indie singer-songwriter. Now that her exams are finished, she’s getting back to her other career trying to promote her music. Andrea has just released a Christmas single entitled ‘Christmas Without You’ and is currently working on her second album – during study breaks of course.

Radio 3 has featured the music of Andrea Gauster. To learn more about her and to hear a sample of her work, check this out.

Next time you're in the examining room and you want to break the tension, why not ask for a song?


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Previous Comments (3)

As a second-year med student, I don't disagree with anything in this entry - in fact, I'd love to have more chances to play music and create art alongside my medical education.

However, I find it aggravating that your solution to the issue appears to be to declare that all medical students should also be artist, and leave things at that. The mental and emotional energy required to create art often requires rest and free time, two things that are in short supply in a current medical curriculum, and something I don't think this entry appreciates.

J., December 22, 2009 11:04 AM

Yeah, first year here. Re. J, I think the time factor might depend on your school. I'm at Queens too and I managed to finish a significant project over the course of the term. Those poor suckers at McGill have a more intense time of it though. What I lack in med school isn't so much time as culture, other people, esp. physicians, into making and talking art.

L. Dog Hammertime, December 22, 2009 8:36 PM

Thanks for covering this topic! I thought that I would just mention that there are arts-based initiatives and other dedicated program areas in other medical schools in Canada - the Arts & Humanities in Health & Medicine Program in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry at the University of Alberta among them (other activities and initiatives are described in an upcoming scan of arts and health activities in Canada that will be published this spring in the journal "Arts and Health"). A significant upcoming event that we can look forward is the 2010 Canadian Conference on Medical Education which has as its theme "White Coat, Warm Heart: Integrating Science and Humanism in Medicine" (in St. John's, NF) ... I anticipate that there will soon be an even broader appreciation of the potential contribution of the liberal arts to medical education, and hopefully, that students will be provided with the opportunity and means to do so.

Pamela Brett-MacLean (AHHM Program, U of Alberta), December 23, 2009 3:15 PM
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