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The demise of cultured doctors is bad for everyone

BMJ 2011; 342 doi: (Published 22 June 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d3649

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Avoiding cultural reductionism

While we are great admirers of the writings of Theodore Dalrymple, he
is overly pessimistic about the breadth of education of current and future
generations of medical students and doctors. We continue to be agreeably
surprised by their engagement in a wide range of cultural activities. This
was brought home to us forcibly when running a module in the Medical
Humanities with first year medical students earlier this year. The course
assignment was to write a 500-word piece in the manner of the Medical
Classics rubric in the BMJ.

We were bowled over by the responses. Their chosen topics included
popular music (Cancer by My Chemical Romance), film (Flatliners), poetry
(one of Eliot's Four Quartets), art (paintings by a blind Turkish artist),
architecture (the new Birmingham Children's Hospital) and personal
narrative (Beethoven's Heiligenstadt Testament on his deafness). The
range, content and quality should not only provide reassurance to future
generations of patients and society but also perhaps provide some pointers
to rethinking what we mean by 'cultured'.

The most important of these is to free ourselves from the straight-
jacket of classic literature (which, pace Mark Twain, everyone talks about
but nobody reads) and envisage a broader palette of cultural activities.
There is no risk that reading will disappear, but reflecting on the
doctors in George Eliot's Middlemarch will remind us that even in
Victorian times there has always been a considerable spectrum of
attachment to reading and the fine arts among doctors.

Medical humanities programmes can further enhance and promote a wider
appreciation of culture as long as they emphasize the present or future
doctor's ability to learn from the cultural activities which are
personally relevant to him/herself. Key to the success of such programmes
is the active engagement of practising doctors, and sustained partnership
with academically informed partners in the humanities to promote academic
rigour in what is always an interdisciplinary process.

In the final analysis, the sustained high readership of Dr
Dalrymple's column is perhaps the ultimate vote of confidence in the
continuing cultural richness of the fabric of medicine!

Competing interests: No competing interests

23 June 2011
Desmond O'Neill
Hilary Moss
National Centre for Arts and Health, Dublin, Ireland