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Humanities Majors in Medicine



“It is one of the superficialities of our time to see in science and in art, two opposites. Imagination is the mother of both.”1

Theodor Billroth, surgeon and musician (1829-1894).


There are more avenues to medical school than aspirational pre-med students may initially consider. The classic pre-med path may be the most straightforward way to medical school, but there are many potential majors that will lend themselves to an appealing application. Humanities major applicants in particular have been of increasing interest to admissions committees, and may even have an advantage over applicants who majored in a science or math. Studies also indicate that those who study the humanities before entering medicine show long-term excellence in areas such as patient satisfaction, communication, and empathy, and also display a high tolerance for ambiguity and a greater resistance to burnout.


The hyperfocus of medical school admissions on applicants’ performance in the hard sciences took shape in the 20th century as a “two cultures” split began to drive a wedge between the arts and the sciences.2 This further accelerated after the Flexner Report in 1910, which established “the biomedical model as the gold standard of medical training.”3 Over the past century, many have spoken out against this model, with an increasing number of studies being focused on the topic in recent years. Some critics have been venomous, such as Dr. Lewis Thomas in 1978, who insisted it would be better for all pre-medical students to study the humanities and for science courses to be the least important consideration for medical school applications.4 However, most of these criticisms focus on the benefit that a more robust involvement in humanities has for medical students in their personal and professional lives.


Medical colleges do seem to be interested in applicants who have a background in the humanities as well. In 2017, aggregated data from the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) indicated that applicants with humanities majors had an acceptance rate into medical school of 46.16%, a higher rate than any other category of applicant, including Physical Sciences, Math and Statistics, Social Sciences, and Biological Sciences.5 In applicant pools primarily full of those who majored in the Biological Sciences, the diverse backgrounds of humanities students provide unique applications that can stand out during the admissions process.


“There’s value with folks coming from a different academic pathway. They come into medical school with different perspective and life experiences. It really gives students an opportunity to assess the human condition through a different lens, and to realize that folks are more than just the symptoms they present.”6

John D. Schriner, associate dean for admissions and student affairs at Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine.


Benefits of the humanities in a medical education


In response to the academic discourse over humanities in medicine, several studies have attempted to empirically quantify the differences in the performance of traditional pre-medical students versus those who studied the humanities. One study, which used patient survey data, determined that “graduating medical students with pre-medical humanities or social sciences majors performed significantly better in terms of CIS (communication and interpersonal skills) than those with natural science majors.”7 These included” scores in ‘Friendly Communication,’ ‘Physical Examination,’ ‘Sensitive Subject Matters,’ and ‘See again as a personal physician?’8 The study found no significant associations between pre-medical majors and USMLE Step 1 and Step 2 Clinical Knowledge scores and concluded that “considering humanistic factors as part of admissions criteria may promote the selection and training of physicians with good communication skills.”9 Another survey found a correlation between medical student’s exposure to the humanities and positive personal qualities, and perhaps most interestingly, reduced burnout, a threat that increasingly plagues healthcare professionals.10 “The three personal qualities that correlated most strongly with exposure to the humanities were tolerance of ambiguity, empathy, and wisdom,” the latter of which they argued was a trait that encompasses all of the “traits which define a well-rounded doctor: empathy, openness to possibilities, emotional resilience, mindfulness, humility, altruism, a knack for learning from life, plus a cathartic sense of humor.”11


Between the development of positive personal traits, boosting the ability to communicate, and cultivating an increased tolerance against burnout, a humanities degree may be helpful for the long-term well being of future physicians. But even in the short term, similar scores on standardized medical testing show that there is no significant detriment to pursuing a humanities degree over one in science, and indeed it seems that medical college admissions are interested in the unique backgrounds of humanities applicants. If you aspire to be a physician, but would rather get a non-traditional pre-med undergraduate degree, there are many paths to medical school, and a degree in the humanities provides a wide range of opportunities and benefits in the field of medicine.


“The humanities may even foster a different way of seeing, thinking, and feeling, that can then be used in any field of endeavor—and especially in one like medicine, which deals primarily with the human condition. The humanities might actually provide an indispensable language for exploring that strange, nuanced, and often nonsensical land called the human condition.”12

Salvatore Mangione, et al, “Medical Students’ Exposure to the Humanities Correlates with Positive Personal Qualities and Reduced Burnout: A Multi-Institutional U.S. Survey,” 2018.


Sources

  1. F. William Sunderman. “Theodor Billroth as Musician.” Bulletin of the Medical Library Association 25 no. 4 (May 1937): 209-220. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC233819/pdf/mlab00292-0003.pdf

  2. C.P. Snow. The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. The 1959 Rede Lecture. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1961. https://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/students/envs_5110/snow_1959.pdf

  3. Thomas P. Duffy. “The Flexner Report--100 Years Later.” The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine 84 no.3 (September 2011): 269–276. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3178858/

  4. Lewis Thomas. “Notes of Biology-Watcher: How to Fix the Premedical Curriculum.” New England Journal of Medicine 298 no. 21 (1978): 1180-1181. doi:10.1056/NEJM197805252982106

  5. David Luther. “Best Major of Med School Might Not Be Biology.” zippia.com. October 13, 2017. https://www.zippia.com/advice/med-school-major/

  6. Brendan Murphy. “How humanities background could make you a better medical student.” ama-assn.org. March 5, 2020. https://www.ama-assn.org/medical-students/preparing-medical-school/how-humanities-background-could-make-you-better-medical

  7. Laura E. Hirschfield, Rachel Yudkowsky, and Yoon Soo Park. “Pre-medical majors in the humanities and social sciences: impact on communication skills and speciality choice.” Medical Education 2018. doi: 10.1111/medu.13774

  8. Hirschfeild et al. “Pre-medical majors.”

  9. Hirschfeild et al. “Pre-medical majors.”

  10. Tait D. Shanafelt, Colin P. West, Lotte N. Dyrbye, Hanhan Wang, Lindsey E. Carlasare, and Christine Sinsky. “Changes in Burnout and Satisfaction With Work-Life Integration in Physicians During the First 2 Years of the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Mayo Clinic Proceedings 97 no. 12 (December 2022): 2248-2258. doi:10.1016/j.mayocp.2022.09.002

  11. Salvatore Mangione, Chayan Chakraborti, Giuseppe Staltari, Rebecca Harrison, Allan R. Tunkel, Kevin T. Liou, Elizabeth Cerceo, Megan Voeller, Wendy L. Bedwell, Keaton Fletcher, and Marc J. Kahn. “Medical Students’ Exposure to the Humanities Correlates with Positive Personal Qualities and Reduced Burnout: A Multi-Institutional U.S. Survey.” Journal of General Internal Medicine 33 (2018): 628-634. doi: 10.1007/s11606-017-4275-8

  12. Mangione et al. “Medical Students’.”

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