An insight into the medical humanities

“Medicine is a science of uncertainty and an art of probability.”

—Sir William Osler

IJME has rightly focused on the medical humanities with a view to sensitising doctors towards their duties and responsibilities as well as towards an awareness of patients as human beings, to be treated with dignity. The articles related to medical humanities emphasise the need to include medical humanities as a subject in medical education to make it a holistic teaching and learning experience (1, 2).

Medical humanities is primarily concerned with enlarging the scope of education and socialisation of healthcare professionals through a study of the arts, literature, social sciences, and law, including critiques of the dominant scientific model in the basic medical sciences. The subject seeks complementarity between science and the humanities (3, 4). The intention of including humanities in the science of medicine is to enhance the human side of the physician which will guide his relationship with the patient, the nursing team, other health personnel and the kith and kin of the patient. Therefore, medical humanities must help the physician to develop intrapersonal and inter-personal relationships with his team and the patient.

Along with clinical skills, the moral sensitivity of the practicing physician needs to be sharpened and guided. This is partly done by teaching medical ethics. Medical ethics may be considered as a tool that bridges the humanities and medicine. For example, the term “reverence for life” teaches that a doctor needs to respect human life and human dignity (4) .

In the present-day context, there is less of humanitarianism and more of science in the practising doctor’s schedule because of the constraints of time and space. How can one sensitise a doctor to human feelings such as compassion, empathy and other emotional aspects of life? Literature can teach and refine a person, for a doctor is also a human person (6) . Today, even the media focuses on the importance of humanitarianism in medical practice. Some examples are television serials such as Grey’s Anatomy, House and ER that can be shown to medical graduates and medical professionals.

Grey’s Anatomy (2005 onwards) is a prime time television medical drama airing on American Broadcasting Company (ABC), which follows Meredith Grey, a first-year surgical intern and her fellow interns as they struggle to become doctors (7, 8). In one scene from this serial, an intern gives birth to a premature baby. Despite all neonatal care, the baby has to undergo an interventional surgery, which will however severely compromise the quality of the baby’s life. The doctor asks the mother to decide what she wants—a baby with many handicaps affecting the quality of life, or allowing the baby to die without the surgery. She is unable to decide and looks to her partner, another doctor, to decide on her behalf. The partner tells her it is not his decision. She as a mother must decide what she wants for her baby-a living “dead” baby or a dead baby. The scene depicts the dilemma as to whether the doctor in the mother has to decide or the mother in the doctor needs to take a decision; the woman in question is both a doctor and a mother.

Medical professionals encounter many such situations in their day-to-day life, sometimes making them uncertain as to what they must do and looking for answers elsewhere. Answers in certain conditions are not simple. Medical humanities sensitises the doctor to the social and moral aspects to enable more informed and better decisions.

I end with the observation that we need to introspect on the human in all of us.

DS Sheriff, Faculty of Medicine, Benghazi University, Benghazi, LIBYA e-mail: [email protected]


  1. Nayak D. Sensitising doctors: a pedagogical approach to medical humanities. Indian J Med Ethics. 2012;9:252-4.
  2. Supe A. Medical humanities in the undergraduate medical curriculum Indian J Med Ethics. 2012;9:263-5.
  3. Rodenhauser P, Strickland MA, Gambalaa CT. Arts-related activities across U.S. medical schools: a follow-up study. Teach Learn Med. 2004;16:233-9.
  4. Charon R. Narrative medicine: form, function, and ethics. Ann Intern Med. 200l;134:83-7.
  5. Sheriff DS. Medical ethics and reverence for life, Eubios J Asian Int Bioeth. 2003;13:224-6.
  6. Sheriff DS. Literature and medical ethics. JRSM. 1988;12:688-90
  7. Ryan M. The Watcher: Shonda Rhimes, creator of ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ and a Chicagoan of the Year. Chicago: Chi cago 2005 Dec 21[cited 2013 Jun 12]. Available from:
  8. Rhodes, J. Thriving ratings for a new patient on ABC. The New York Times [Internet]. 2005 Apr 14 [cited 2013 Jun 12]. Available from: C0A9639C8B63
About the Authors

DS Sheriff ([email protected])

Faculty of Medicine

Benghazi University, Benghazi




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