Should study of the history of medicine be a requirement for medical trainees?

September 5, 2017

Dawna M. Gilchrist, MD, FRCPC, FCCMG, DHMSA | Professor Emerita, Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry, University of Alberta and Secretary Treasurer, Alberta Medical Foundation

Contributed by: Dawna M. Gilchrist, MD, FRCPC, FCCMG, DHMSA | Professor Emerita, Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry, University of Alberta and Secretary Treasurer, Alberta Medical Foundation

As yet, the history of medicine is neither mandated for medical student accreditation, nor included in specialty or generalist competencies, but powerful arguments are being made to relevant committees and through academic publishing. I am one of many physicians and historians who posit that an appreciation for the history of medicine would be of significant value to medical trainees.

Our suggestion is that studying medical history should not be just a recitation of who, what and when. Rather than a simple compendium of names, dates and past events, the history of medicine provides important perspectives and insights into current medical education, research and clinical practice. It is a comprehensive collection of observations on the evolution of medical philosophy, technology and knowledge that allows us to understand evolving concepts of disease, therapeutics and medical organization. Further, by virtue of its interdisciplinary nature, the study of medical history provides essential commentary on the social, economic and political context of the medical profession: not only the “how” of where medicine is today but the “why.”

The skills derived from exploring the historical aspects of medicine encourage investigation, strengthen judgment and enhance critical thinking. Such study can provide pragmatic knowledge and the enhancement of professional behaviors. The history of medicine captures the attention, fires the imagination and engages the intellect.

According to Jones, Greene, Duffin and Warner in Making the Case for History in Medical Education, key historical themes that could be incorporated into medical trainee education include: “the changing burden of disease, the social determinants of health, the contingency of medical knowledge and practice, and the complex meanings of therapeutic efficacy.”

How can you promote an interest in the history of medicine, especially for medical trainees? You can attend and encourage attendance at events in the history of medicine. You can promote and advocate for more formal activities in the history of medicine throughout the health sciences and in other faculties, either singly or in collaboration. You can contribute your opinions by letter, publication, print or social media. If you plan seminars, rounds, or conferences in medicine, please consider adding history content. For those who supervise medical trainees, encourage reading and even formal history research projects.

An understanding of our history empowers us in the present and for the future. Let us work together to expand our horizons!

Editor’s note: This opinion piece has previously appeared in modified form in “The Quad” – an e-blog at the University of Alberta

The Alberta Medical Association stands as an advocate for its physician members, providing leadership & support for their role in the provision of quality health care.