Global Health Humanities: A New Avenue For Medical Students

This blog post is from Mariam Ahmed and Farhiya Omar, both medical students at St George’s, University of London.

Rewind a few years, to life before medical school. Our intentions for being doctors were first and foremost to benefit and help fellow humans in their times of most need by being compassionate souls and embracing our common humanity. As medical students, we have always thought that our interests in health and medicine must be rooted in science, and this concept has been heavily drummed into our minds from the process of applying to medical school until now. This is understandable since the majority of our training is focussed on clinical practice for which we are expected to have a sound understanding of basic medical sciences.

Through medical school we digest books of drugs, pathologies, and management plans, and we are exposed to practitioners who often view patients as disordered mechanisms that need to be fixed. Without us realising, this took a toll on our own constructions of disease, illness and suffering. However, as our time in training has progressed, we have found ourselves to be in great need of reflection as it helps us to de-stress and learn from our experiences. This realisation was brought to the forefront after we had the opportunity of enrolling onto the Global Health Humanities Module, developed and led by Dr Ayesha Ahmad, a lecturer in Global Health at our medical school and university, St George’s, University of London.

Our inspirations for enrolling onto this module were many, but the most prominent reasons included liberating our minds from the shackles and constraints of routine medicine, in which there is not much room for free thought and expression. Through this module, we recognised the role of the humanities in medicine. Global Health Humanities reaffirms the historical importance of the humanities, including religion, belief systems, art, and philosophy in medicine across the globe and as an integral discipline in many civilisations. The Global Health Humanities course has allowed us to broaden our horizons and open our minds to the world of diversity.

As the world becomes increasingly globalised, the appreciation of differences in constructions of health and approaches to illness amongst different communities become even more important. Through this we become more compassionate, unprejudiced, and empathic carers and physicians. For us as medical students, these reflections can be a means of placing ourselves in the shoes of our patients and pondering over how they must reason and feel. This can be difficult in the medical workplace, which is often very time pressured and where it is easy to get caught up with the hustle and bustle of ward rounds, clinical examinations and reports. Though there is an emphasis in developing a good rapport with patients and upholding good communication, very rarely do we just get to take a step back and try to appreciate the patient for who they are and their lived experiences.

Over this year, we have learnt that Global Health Humanities plays a huge role in helping collect these humanistic experiences and using these accounts to connect with each other. It helps us relate through what is common and learn from what is different. While this may seem like an arduous and futile task to many practitioners, the benefits that can come out of this are many. Other than building better understanding of our patient’s thoughts and emotions, it can help break down stigmas in a lot of taboo areas.

Through studying the role of the humanities in medicine, we are able to really and truly appreciate the diversity of illness narratives across the globe and to understand that behind every patient, there is a unique story waiting to be heard. Though we may not be able to hear each in its entirety, we can try our best to connect with whatever parts of the story are entrusted to us. What Global Health Humanities has taught us best, is that to become the doctors we initially aspired to be, we must always remember that we are never just treating a patient but a fellow member of humanity.

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