Why Doctors Should Be English Majors

In early May, I was lucky enough to receive an invitation to see a production of “The Tempest”, by the Hobart Shakespeareans, a fifth grade class led by renowned elementary school teacher Rafe Esquith.  The production was scored, lit, set and acted by inner city ten year olds who, lacking funds for elaborate Elizabethan garb, all wore the same T-shirt emblazoned by an image of William Shakespeare, with the simple slogan “Will Power.”  I wrote about my experience in the blog piece “Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On.”  Two weeks ago, an op-ed piece by Verlyn Klinkenborg in the New York Times decried “The Decline and Fall of the English Major: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/23/opinion/sunday/the-decline-and-fall-of-the-english-major.html?ref=opinionHYPERLINK   As I read it, I reflected on my own experience in medical school and beyond, and I think that Mr. Klinkenborg’s message is one that medical school admissions committees should be hearing loud and clear.

Despite the fact that doctors are faced with increasing mounds of paperwork and decreasing autonomy, medical school admissions are as competitive as ever. All handwringing about the state of the profession aside, young people still desperately want to be doctors.  Students who would vie for a coveted slot in medical school must start their resume building early in their college careers, and must complete with flying colors a standard premedical curriculum which with rare exception has not changed one iota since I applied to medical school in the fall of 1974. Students who major in the basic sciences—biology, chemistry and physics—have an advantage in the race for med school admission because they typically outperform other majors in their MCAT scores and because their majors allow them to get a leg up in scientific research.  In many cases, college students who are science majors apply for medical school with first author publications listed on their curriculum vitae.  And at the end of medical school, students who have taken the time to obtain a dual MD-PhD degree are the ones who are most competitive for those coveted specialties of dermatology, plastic surgery, orthopedic surgery and radiation oncology where the prize at the end of the road is a controllable “lifestyle” combined with high reimbursement.

But even in the rarified world of first author scientific publications in peer reviewed journals, there is that moment of truth, when push comes to shove, and a group of editors must decide whether to publish the paper of one author, or someone else’s.  No matter how brilliant the tables and graphs, in the end that decision will be made on how well the author EXPLAINED the data, how compelling was the argument, and how explicitly the new data informs both the reader and the greater body of work on the subject.  In the end, this is where those former English, and history, and philosophy majors shine, and surpass their basic science background colleagues.  Just ask Dr. Harold Varmus, the current director of the National Cancer Institute, Nobel Laureate, and possessor of both undergraduate and graduate degrees in English from Harvard.

This week I worked with an excellent medical student.  He was bright, personable, and thorough and the patients truly enjoyed speaking with him.  We saw six or seven new patients together, and here is an example of the narrative on the physical exam on one: “ABD: SFT, sMS, NTDR, NABS, NHSM.” Say what?  For the non-MD readers out there, that means that the abdomen was soft and non-tender with no masses, abnormal bowel sounds and no enlargement of the liver or spleen. In this fast paced world of texting messaging and abbreviation, this old English major would like to see her own life history and physical exam written in English, please!   Why does this matter?  Colum McCann said it well in Let the Great World Spin:  “Literature can remind us that not all life is already written down: there are still so many stories to be told.”  Very few doctors will ever win a Nobel Prize.  But all of us should be able to tell a patient’s story, tell it well, and make sure it’s worth listening to.  After all, it could mean the difference between life and death.

8 thoughts on “Why Doctors Should Be English Majors

  1. The decline in teaching cursive handwriting, the rise of the keyboard, and the introduction of some State Standards that do not require children to know cursive has me just as upset. I am a passionate advocates of the cultural tradition of cursive. Some teachers and handwriting experts say the decline of cursive is natural, and it should be allowed to morph into a print/cursive hybrid, or bow out altogether. Acronyms drive me mad. The Military is one of the worst for their use. MIJAOF! (Maybe I’m just an old fart!)

      • I am NOT a fan of cursive. I have too many vets who still have illegible written records and it drives me crazy. When I work at their practices I make it a point to PRINT all my notes so at least they can read what I said.

        Better yet, I wish they’d put computers everywhere and allow me to type in my notes. And They should learn to type as well.

  2. As an RN of over 40 years experience, I can say that I have seen printing that is not readable, seriously!

    I have very mixed feelings about computers at work, when they work well, at times, they can make my job easier. However, I do not always think that they have made my job faster, in fact, I find they require more time for charting (have to keep going from window to window, anyway, trust me, lots of time wasted opening right areas to chart, find orders, flag the latter, etc) and I DO think in my job, they have taken time away from my direct hands on patient care. :<(

    I rarely use my cell phone to text, still preferring the old fashioned way (MIJAOF2!)of talking to a live person. I also have been an avid reader my entire lifetime and literacy has been (and will be) very important to me. I find myself frustrated – the more I have used a computer for various reasons, it seems (?) the more potential for misspells and grammatical errors. I find myself getting sloppy more often than I would wish to admit re those issues. I know I can still turn out a good paper if I was to have a reason to do so. I used to pick my college courses not on how few books to read (as many students said they did), but on how many books I GOT to read, plus papers to write. Oddball out, it seems?

  3. I cannot abide acronyms……when they fly my way, I respond ‘SEP, SEP!’, which stops them in their tracks. When asked for an explanation, I smile sweetly and say ‘Speak English Please’.

    An old-timey teacher (English as a second Language)

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