Written by Joanna Hughes

Between demanding schedules, intense pressure and steep competition, many medical students experience the phenomenon of burnout. And while we often focus on diet, exercise, sleep and other healthy lifestyle practices for their value in mitigating physician burnout, recent research published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine indicates another factor with the potential to boost “positive personal qualities” and reduce burnout: exposure to the humanities. Here’s a closer look at the findings.

The Humanities Imperative

The link between medical humanities courses and better patient care is  well-documented. In fact, as far back as 1919, William Osler wrote in the British Medical Journal, “Science and humanities are] twin berries on one stem, grievous damage has been done to both in regarding [them]...in any other light than complemental.”

But while we often think of the relationship between the humanities and medicine in terms of its impact on patient care, the latest research also points to profound benefits for physicians themselves.

Positive Outcomes Abound

Given the “uncertain and limited role” played by literature, music, theater and the visual arts in medical education, researchers surveyed medical students in the hopes of determining whether those who were exposed to the humanities would have more positive physician qualities, such as wisdom, empathy, self-efficacy, emotional appraisal, and spatial skills, while simultaneously having fewer negative qualities, such as intolerance of ambiguity, physical fatigue, emotional exhaustion, and cognitive weariness.

The results were compelling. Not only did students who engaged in humanities activities report higher levels of empathy, tolerance of ambiguity and wisdom, but they also reported lower incidences of physical fatigue, emotional exhaustion and cognitive weariness. “Our study empirically confirms what many have intuitively suspected for years: exposure to the humanities is associated with both important personal qualities and prevention of burnout,” conclude the paper’s authors.

The research doesn’t just suggest that medical students can benefit from exposure to the humanities, but also that medical schools should take note. Contend the authors, “These findings may carry implications for medical school recruitment and curricula design."


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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