healthHealth and Medicine

Doctors Who Engage With Humanities Are More Empathic, Less Likely To Burnout


Stephen Luntz

Stephen has a science degree with a major in physics, an arts degree with majors in English Literature and History and Philosophy of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication.

Freelance Writer


There was a time when medicine, particularly anatomy, was deeply aware of its connection to the arts. These days there is a large seperation, but that might be a mistake.

Medical students benefit from appreciating and participating in the arts and humanities during their course. Not only do those who engage in pursuits such as music, theater, and visual art have characteristics associated with being better doctors, on average, but they are less vulnerable to exhaustion. In the context of other research showing more than half of doctors describe themselves as having suffered burnout while experiencing the highest suicide rate of any profession, the findings have big implications for medical studies, and probably other sciences as well.

Professor Marc Kahn of Tulane University and Dr Salvatore Mangione of Thomas Jefferson University conducted a study of 739 students at five US medical schools. They asked how often students engaged with the so-called humanities (music, literature, theater and visual arts) including both active and passive involvement. The students were also assessed for a range of qualities, including desirable features in a doctor, such as empathy and self-efficacy, and undesirable ones such as physical, emotional and cognitive exhaustion.


Students with more exposure to the humanities appeared in better shape to become doctors on many measures. Most significantly, humanities exposure was associated with greater openness to new ideas, better capacity to read both students' own and others' emotions, as well as lower emotional exhaustion. Since so much of the arts is about providing insight into those around us, or ourselves, the connection is unsurprising. It's less obvious why the same students were less likely to be physically exhausted and (visual art aside) had better spatial skills, but these correlations were also significant.

Decades ago C.P. Snow bemoaned the increasing tendency for people trained in either the science or the arts to know little about the other, as the old idea of the “Renaissance man (or woman)” has been replaced with increasing specialization. "The fields of art and medicine have been diverging for the last 100 years," Mangione said in a statement.

The medical schools in which Kahn and Mangione are based both boast they encourage students to engage with the arts through elective courses, but the study raises the question of whether this is sufficient.

Kahn told IFLScience; “The word 'causation' is problematic” for studies like this one. Without controlled trials, it is difficult to eliminate the possibility that more empathetic and resilient students choose to devote more time to the arts, rather than that exposure producing those qualities. Nevertheless, Mangione indicated; “The humanities might provide a different and possibly better brain,” he said.


Mangione also pointed to reports Nobel prize winning scientists are many times more likely to have experience in theater, or to write poetry or novels, than their colleagues.

The humanities may make for better scientists, but it takes scientific methods to prove it.


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