Medical Humanities ‘Will Make Me a Better Physician’

Monday, July 1, 2013

Tamara McBride entered the UA College of Medicine – Tucson in 2009, her heart set on a career in obstetrics and gynecology. Now just a few months away from her medical degree, McBride has had a change of heart. She wants to be a family physician.

How did this change occur? It took a trip to West Africa and the reflective writing program in which she participates, through the college’s Program in Medical Humanities.

The trip to West Africa in 2011 entailed some very difficult work, McBride recalled. “It was hard to understand what was going on, and what I could do to help. So I wrote in my journal, and began processing what I wrote. And through that process, I realized I still wanted to do women’s health, but through family medicine instead of ob-gyn. I would say that reflective writing made me realize what I really want to do.”

Reflective writing is a key component of Medical Humanities, which offers a rich menu of electives to medical students. While medical school teaches students just about everything they need to know about the human body, the goal of Medical Humanities is to encourage “the exploration of the human experience in its entirety.”

Ron Grant, MD, a pediatrician with a degree in creative writing, is director of the Program in Medical Humanities. Reflective writing is “a low-intensity activity – five minutes of writing, two times a week, will do the trick – and the benefit is humungous.”

Dr. Grant meets monthly with small groups of students who often share their journal writings, or the writings of other authors whose work they admire.

“Journaling and reflective writing are important,” Dr. Grant said, “when you’re going through something as intense as medical school.”

Once a year, Medical Humanities produces Harmony, a literary and visual arts magazine that features essays, poems, photographs and paintings by students, faculty, staff and patients affiliated with the Arizona Health Sciences Center, which includes the UA College of Medicine – Tucson.

Another Medical Humanities program is the annual Willed Body Memorial Service, which medical students organize to pay tribute to the deceased persons who left their bodies to the college.

Art Aloud is a “spoken art” project open to anyone, including the general public. It’s held once a month in the coffee lounge of the Arizona Health Sciences Library. Faculty, staff, students and members of the public take turns reading poems or essays – theirs or someone else’s. Art Aloud is free, and includes a healthful buffet lunch.

“For sure, I think my participation in Medical Humanities will make me a better physician,” said third-year medical student Jeanne Feuerstein, who is editor of Harmony.

She also places high value on reflective writing. “Writing is huge,” she declared. “It lets me think of things in a broader way, including how to interact with people. I think that improves my thinking, and it makes me a happier person.

“It’s really hard in the third year to not get really wrapped up in all the medicine. You really need some sort of avenue to take you away once in a while,” she said. “I find that writing and reading, doing things that are outside the realm of medicine, having to do with people, really does that.”

Both Feuerstein and McBride hope to continue their involvement with Medical Humanities after medical school.

Last month, McBride was working in a rural health rotation in Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca, Mexico.

“I am continuing to write here,” she said, “although in Spanish, which makes my creativity both limited but more creative as I search my limited vocabulary to express myself.”