Written by Joanna Hughes

If you’re preparing for medical school, shoring up your knowledge of the “hard sciences” like biology, chemistry, biochemistry, and physics may be a top priority. And with good reason: Success on the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) relies on competency in these areas.

However, just because these subjects are important doesn’t mean they’re the only fields that matter when it comes to becoming a doctor. In fact, having a liberal arts background can be a vital asset -- both while you’re in medical school and during your career as a doctor.

Here’s a closer look at five advantages future physicians stand to gain from liberal arts backgrounds.

1. It can boost your diagnosis skills.

Medicine calls on an extensive body of knowledge. And while technology has made it easier to run tests and checks by rote, it’s not enough on its own. “A small but growing number of medical professors insist that medicine is not just a science – it's an art. They argue that education in the humanities and the arts is the best antidote to the kind of tunnel vision that can lead to misdiagnosis and the lack of empathy that is eroding the doctor-patient relationship,” a recent Globe and Mail article proposes.

According to these experts, the arts can help doctors gain different -- and valuable -- perspectives. From the ability to observe facial expressions to better communication skills acquired from exposure to the literary arts, these capabilities can improve the diagnostic process. "People who look at the same problems through different lenses will make us better in the long run," medical education dean David Muller concludes.

2. It can make you more empathetic.

It’s not for nothing that many medical schools are adding arts programming to their curricula. Dr. Michael Flanagan, who teaches a fourth-year med school class, “Impressionism and the Art of Communication,” told Artsy of the push, “It’s protecting and maintaining students’ empathy so that by the time they go off to practice medicine, they’re still empathetic individuals.” This is particularly important given evidence indicating that medical students may become less empathetic during their four years of schooling.

Wondering why empathy matters so much, in the context of medicine? Research shows that more information is shared between families and physicians when doctors demonstrate empathy. This, in turn, facilitates better patient outcomes.

3. It offers useful insights into ethical issues.

While many scientific fields are black and white, medicine has many grey areas. The ability to look at -- and therefore treat -- the “whole person” can promote understanding of these issues. According to research published in the academic journal Medical Humanities, the arts can inform medicine in three ways, in this respect: they can stimulate insight into common patterns of response (shared human experiences); they can offer insight into individual differences or uniqueness; and they can enrich the language and thought of doctors.

Medical School professor David Silbersweig suggests that this approach uniquely enables medical students to “see the forest for the trees” despite the complexities of many ideas.

“When evaluating applicants for student or faculty positions and evaluating candidates for tenure and promotion, I find that those with the broader set of academic experiences are generally the most able to deliver innovative and impactful solutions. In my various institutional administrative roles, and in my interactions with many non-academic industries, I see that those with a broader intellectual background are often best able to frame questions, and contribute at high levels in our organizations, which face ever-changing landscapes and challenges,” Silbersweig reveals.  

Suzie Willson, a pioneer in the use of arts in healthcare education, adds, “Obviously, medicine always takes place within a cultural and ethical context. [...] The more knowledge that can be brought to bear on the rather abstract concept of respecting patients irrespective of their lifestyle, gender, and so on, the better. Arts can provide a colorful and provocative platform from which to examine ideas of identity, control, sexuality, and ownership, a platform that actually embraces subjectivity.”

5. It can strengthen your application.

Getting into medical school is a major achievement, and usually requires pre-medical training. However, this isn’t always the case. Many forward-thinking medical schools now prize outside-the-box candidates, some of whom may have no science-related training at all. Specifically, students with “right brain” qualities, AKA artistic and visual skills, may have an inside edge with more progressive selection committees, according to a 2013 Forbes article.

Associate professor of medicine Dr. Salvatore Mangione explains, “More and more, the data are quite convincing that people that think in pictures may actually have greater innovation and greater creativity than people who think in words.” As the field of medicine becomes increasingly imaged- based, these qualities may become even more in-demand by medical schools.

The overall takeaway? For starters, majoring in a traditional pre-med subject like biology or chemistry is not an automatic ticket into medical school. In fact, choosing a non-conventional major can give you a surprising inside edge. Wondering which schools, in particular, will welcome the academic diversity you bring to the table? Check out US News & World Report’s roundup of medical schools that often admit liberal arts majors.

Worried that you’ll be at a disadvantage if you go this route, meanwhile? Set those worries aside. Research shows that the academic outcomes of students with backgrounds in humanities were the same as those of classmates who’d pursued traditional premedical requirements across a comprehensive range of measures, including basic science knowledge, clerkship performance, humanism, leadership, community service, research fellowships, distinctions, and honors.

Not only that, but their backgrounds positioned them to come out ahead in other measures, including communication skills and a more humanistic approach to care; a greater interest in pursuing broader med school experiences, including greater participation in scholarship and research; and a heightened interested in fields involving more interpersonal connections between doctors and patients, such as primary care and psychiatry.

Perhaps this quote, a favorite of Muller, best encapsulates the benefits of a liberal arts education for supporting physician success: "Science is the foundation of an excellent medical education, but a well-rounded humanist is best suited to make the most of that education.”

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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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