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Are Healing Hands Losing Touch?

In my time at Boston College, I have found nothing more confusing than figuring out our school motto. Is it “men and women for others,” “ever to excel,” or “go set the world aflame”? Being a member of the Jesuit community, the liberal arts educational sphere, and the ever-diversifying world, BC has numerous rallying cries. For a time, I believed the saying to be “cura personalis” (care for the whole person). Though I am now aware that the official adage is “ever to excel,” I couldn't help but think, what if our university was rooted in cura personalis? What would be different? One answer first came to mind: the pre-med track.

The Boston College “pre-health” track requires general chemistry with a lab, organic chemistry with a lab, biology with a lab, physics with a lab, and English. This satisfies a baseline understanding of key themes tested on the MCAT. It is a track focused on facts including the functional inner workings of various bodily systems and balancing chemical equations. However, focusing only on that objective knowledge represents such a limited view of caring—it focuses on caring for the body, but not the mind or soul. In a truly all-encompassing field, where is the attention to the whole person?

As Emily Zona, MCAS ’19, a psychology B.S. major, medical humanities minor, and pre-health track participant, says, “A medical education teaches aspiring professionals to treat X symptoms with Y treatments, but the reality is that there are a multitude of additional factors that physicians ought to consider when caring for their patients.”

Atul Gawande, an American surgeon who also works in public health research, writes in an article for The Guardian, “We understand with great precision how mothers can die in childbirth, how certain tumours behave, how the Ebola virus spreads, how the heart can go wrong and be fixed.” He goes on to say, “But the story of our time, I think, is as much a story about struggling with ineptitude as struggling with ignorance.”

Dr. Gawande understands “ineptitude” to mean that “the knowledge exists but an individual or a group of individuals fail to apply that knowledge correctly.” Students are being educated extensively in the natural sciences, but that knowledge can only go so far in a patient setting.

Some may argue that the liberal arts values of the Boston College Core Curriculum foster cura personalis, and so the pre-med track can stand on its own, remaining lab-driven and textbook-oriented. But a social science requirement at BC can be fulfilled with two economics classes. Though I do not devalue the study of economics, especially in the healthcare industry, there are course options that would better expose our aspiring doctors to the human condition, something that is often forgotten in healthcare.

In the spring of 2017, BC will offer courses in sociology titled “Introduction to Sociology for Healthcare Professionals,” “Death and Dying,” “Mental Illness and Society,” and “Medical Sociology.”  Some spring electives in psychology include “Emotion,” “Cognitive Neuroscience: Exploring Mind and Brain,” “Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder,” and “Neurobiological Basis of Learning and Memory,” all of which will orient potential medical students around the concept of the human person.

While I do not know the solution to producing caring doctors, I do know good doctors—you remember the good ones. I remember how they made me feel safe and nurtured. They made shots hurt less and they knew how to rip off a Band-Aid with minimal pain. I also remember the bad doctors, but for different reasons. They lacked the care that I now consider paramount to being a good doctor. I do not claim that all doctors will suddenly be more attentive and sensitive once classes in sociology, philosophy, or psychology become pre-med requirements. But perhaps such classes would serve to remind them that damaged lungs and twisted ankles also have a face, a name, hopes, and dreams. People are more than their ailments, and they should be treated as such. Having an undergraduate medical track that recognizes the whole person creates doctors that you remember—the good ones.

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Unabashed bandwagon bookreader, trying to reclaim my Irish roots one far-fetched story at a time.