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Medical Humanities and the Arts in the education of healthcare professionals and students: interview with Giskin Day

We are glad to present an interview with Giskin Day, principal teaching fellow in the School of Medicine at Imperial College London and member of the international Faculty for our Advanced Workshop in Narrative Medicine

Q. Could you introduce yourself and your professional and academic activity?

GD. I am Giskin Day, a principal teaching fellow in the School of Medicine at Imperial College London. I am the course lead for an intercalated BSc in Medical Science with Humanities, Philosophy & Law, and I also support teaching activities in the humanities across the university. A year ago I went part-time to study for a PhD in gratitude in healthcare. I explain a bit about this project here.

Q. Why are Medical Humanities crucial in making better healthcare professionals, in your opinion?

GD. The medical humanities are crucial to health and medical education because many educational curricula have lost touch with the ways in which culture shapes patients’ understandings of health and illness. Patients do not do a degree course to learn how to be patients – they learn about medicine and medical practice from cultural representations around them. When medical education becomes disconnected from the cultural environment in which our health professionals must operate, our students risk losing touch with the body as social and cultural, rather than merely a biological entity. We want our doctors and health professionals to be more than competent technicians: we want them to be well-rounded, creative individuals capable of treating people as well as diseases.

Q. In which ways do Medical Humanities enrich clinical practice teaching? Could you give us some examples?

GD. The medical humanities enrich clinical teaching by offering novel and complementary insights into the human condition. It is one thing to read about locked-in syndrome, for example, in a textbook, but quite another to read Dominique Bauby’s account in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Similarly, the study of history of medicine gives students an insight into the origins of existing practices, giving a deep understanding of how we come to be where we are. Philosophy equips students with the ability to engage with intellectual ideas about their profession, thinking concepts through and being able to reason logically and clearly. There are so many ways that the humanities expands the horizons of students in ways that complement their clinical teaching. Most of all, my hope is that medical humanities authorises students to think of themselves as creative beings, capable of coming up with innovative ideas to solve problems.

Q. Why are narrative skills important, in your opinion, and which techniques and sources can help professionals in developing them?

GD. My favourite saying is that bodies are made up of molecules, but people are made up of stories. Narrative skills help students to understand stories: the stories we tell about ourselves and about others. It’s not only plot and character that are important, but the way stories unfold in time and the subtext – what is in light and what is in shadow. Listening out for the metaphors that people use to describe and understand their predicaments is one of the most formidable diagnostic tools professionals have. Of course, reading and creative writing are some of the best ways of developing narrative skills, but I think the most powerful of all is poetry. Reading, discussing and analysing poetry is a time-efficient and very effective way of honing narrative skills.

Q. In which ways do healthcare professionals foster creativity in their everyday practice, and why is it important for them?

GD. So much is expected of our healthcare professionals these days that the profession can be rather soul-destroying, leading to exhaustion and burnout. I think that creativity, although not a panacea, can help professionals to enjoy their jobs more. Whilst being creative in itself is often therapeutic, it can be useful too. Life drawing can give a better understanding of anatomy, sculpture hones haptic skills, and creative writing can be a deeply meaningful form of reflection.

Q. Why is art important in the education of healthcare professionals and students?

GD. We can point to plenty of competent professionals who have no interest in art, but I do believe that art has the power to enrich the intellectual life of those in demanding careers. In medical education, a study of art can help to hone observation skills, communication skills, reflective skills and empathic skills. Some of the most articulate commentators on medicine are (or have been) artists – people like Marc Quinn, Eleanor Crook, and Jo Spence. It’s a truism that medicine is an art and a science, but much of medical education focuses on the latter at the expense of the former.

Q. Which kinds of art do you use in education courses, and how?

GD. In our BSc, students are taught by a variety of artists who are inspired by medicine in their work. Our students have a chance to experience life drawing, sculpture, photography, graphic medicine, music, textiles and collage. For their final BSc project, producing an artwork is a required part of their research method: we want to see how ‘thinking through making’ influences their understanding of their topic. It is one of the most rewarding and transformative parts of our course.

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