Written by Joanna Hughes

Modern medicine is constantly advancing. But just because we are moving forward doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be gained from looking at the past. In fact, ancient medicine -- everything from herbs to acupuncture to prayer -- has a lot to teach us. If we’re willing to listen, that is.

Here’s a closer look at six things medical students can learn from studying ancient medicine.

1. You’ll have an inside edge on the lingo.

Did you know that medical school students learn approximately 4,000 words per year? That's more than 10 new words every day! Even if this doesn’t seem like a lot on its own, imagine having to master these words while simultaneously attending to all of the other rigors of medical school. Needless to say, this is no easy feat.

However, it becomes a much easier feat when you have an understanding of Greek or Latin. Why? Because, according to Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary, just under 90 percent of all medical terms have roots in these languages. The more exposure you have to these words and their roots, the quicker you will pick up on the terms you need to know.

2. You might actually end up ahead of your time.

When we think of ancient medicine, we may think of more superstitious than scientific. While ancient worshippers may indeed have believed in gods and goddesses with healing powers, Hippocrates -- who lived around 400 B.C. -- was surprisingly prescient. Indeed, the Hippocratic Oath, named after him, which establishes fundamental principles of medical ethics, remains of paramount importance today. 

An entry on the National Library of Medicine's History of Medicine division website says, “Hippocrates is generally credited with turning away from divine notions of medicine and using observation of the body as a basis for medical knowledge. Prayers and sacrifices to the gods did not hold a central place in his theories, but changes in diet, beneficial drugs, and keeping the body ‘in balance’ were the key.” If you think this sounds like what we now call “holistic medicine,” you would be right.

In other words, while doctors today lean heavily on “a pill for every ill,” Hippocrates-inspired ancient physicians took a more well-rounded, tailored approach to treating patients -- not their diseases.

3. You will be more inclined to accept that doctors don’t know everything.

If you’ve ever watched a hospital drama on television, you’re probably familiar with the trope of the know-it-all doctor. But while televisions are a relatively new phenomenon, know-it-all doctors are not. The ancient Greeks thought they knew everything, but we know now that they did not. Perhaps, in the distant future, we will find we were wrong on some things... 

The Conversation suggests, “Looking at a medical system so different from our own, but one which lasted for many centuries, teaches us that we should never accept anything without challenging it and without being prepared to rethink if new evidence comes along.”

The takeaway? being open to new and different things -- as opposed to expecting that what worked yesterday is what will work best tomorrow -- can help you be a better physician.

4. You will be positioned for better doctor-patient relationships.

One non-clinical lesson from the doctor/patient relationships of ancient times? Because it was difficult for patients to trust their doctors, doctors had to work hard to bridge this gap. While times have changed, this dynamic hasn’t. When doctors don’t try to understand their patients, the doctor-patient relationship suffers. And a growing body of evidence tells us that a poor doctor-patient relationship leads to worse patient outcomes.

5. There is a spiritual element for many patients.

Spirituality and religion were a huge part of ancient medicine. And while advancements in medicine and technology superseded these things for a long while, experts are now acknowledging the role they can play in supporting patient health. Indeed, the power of the placebo effect in healthcare is well established.

Horace DeLisser, MD, says, “Medicine is inherently an emotional, psychological and existential experience. Spirituality is part of people’s identity. Understanding these beliefs helps to better care for patients and form relationships.” You don’t have to share these beliefs, but you do have to acknowledge them. “Part of professional development is dealing with many kinds of emotional, psychological challenges. Being able to engage that spiritual realm as a physician ultimately helps you do your work better,” DeLisser continues.

6. Some ancient medical treatments are still used today.

Just because a treatment is old (and icky) doesn’t mean it’s not useful. Leech therapy, maggot therapy, fecal transplants, and even cesarean sections have their roots in ancient times, and are still used by doctors today, according to US News & World Report. Wouldn’t you like to impress an attending with knowledge of one of these ancient therapies while rounding?

A character in Homer’s Iliad said, "A physician is worth more than several other men put together, for he can cut out arrows and spread healing herbs.” And while you may not spend much time cutting out arrows, learning these and other things during your time in medical school has the potential to amplify your impact as a doctor.

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Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.
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