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So your doctor majored in history?

Medicine, law, ministry or business — a humanities degree fits

By Kim McGrath Office of Communications and External Relations
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The Association of American Medical Colleges announced this year that the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) in 2015 will include a new behavioral sciences section — a step that recognizes the importance of the humanities to the future of medicine.

But why would you want your next doctor to have majored in English or philosophy or classics?

“Consider the value of having a physician who has learned through undergraduate studies the habit of questioning, of using the imagination to walk in someone else’s shoes, of finding patterns, of balancing moral and philosophical concerns,” says Dean of the College Jacque Fetrow. “When you think about it, the practice of medicine is fundamentally about working with people.

So, too, are the practices of law, ministry and business. In fact, there are very few, if any, professional careers where an understanding of humanity and training in the humanities isn’t critical.

In a recent panel discussion on the importance of humanities in the world of work, hosted by the Wake Forest University Humanities Institute, Debra Humphreys, vice president for policy and public engagement for the Association of American Colleges and Universities, told students: “We need to better articulate what a quality education is in the 21st century and how it sets up students for lifetime success.”

Mary Foskett, professor of religion and director of the Humanities Institute agrees. “The careful analytical, critical, imaginative and reflective practices that the humanities teach are very much needed by a generation who will be called upon to discover, innovate and communicate constructive responses to the challenges they will meet over the course of their working lives.”

The road less traveled

One example of how humanities majors are needed to offer new perspectives in the professions is in the medical field, and the University has responded. In the age of Obamacare and printed organs and specialization, Wake Forest has opened a new path to medical school — a rigorous Interdisciplinary Humanities Pathway to Medicine Program that offers guaranteed admission to Wake Forest Medical School for up to five undergraduates majoring in the humanities or fine arts.

The program combines Wake Forest’s top-25 undergraduate college with its highly ranked medical school to help widen the lens through which future doctors examine and treat their patients.

Students apply in their sophomore year. They agree to major in history, philosophy or religion; English, a foreign language or classics; or art, theatre, music or dance. They must also minor in interdisciplinary humanities and complete all the prerequisites for admission to Wake Forest medical school.

Tom Phillips, director of the interdisciplinary humanities minor at Wake Forest oversees the Pathway program. “We need medical practitioners who know the value of listening,” he says. “So Wake Forest is intentionally looking for undergraduate students who see medicine as a healing art that combines an intimate understanding of human nature in a social context with exceptional science skills.”

Students with humanities backgrounds introduce ideas into their classes and during their rotations that offer different ways of thinking about patient care.

“Focusing on students with strong humanities backgrounds adds diversity to our medical school class and brings humanistic qualities such as empathy and good communications skills to the student body as a whole,” says Dr. Edward Abraham, professor and dean at Wake Forest School of Medicine.

Third-year Wake Forest medical student Kristy Tayapongsak (’11) thinks the Pathway program will grant pre-med students the freedom to major in something other than a basic science. Though it’s not unheard of for students who plan to go to medical school to major in humanities, it is unusual. Tayapongsak says pre-med students often feel pressured into majoring in the sciences, not realizing that the humanities are just as vital to the development of the physician skill set.

“Coming out of high school, I had strictly labeled myself as a math and science person,” she says. “If you had asked me about majoring in the humanities, I would have laughed. But majoring in religion in tandem with taking pre-med classes gave me the best of both worlds. Studying religion changed my thought process and will influence how I practice medicine. What I love about religion is the overlap between what I learned inside the classroom and how I live outside of it.”

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