Should Medical Students Be Taught a 'Bardside' Manner?

Peter Russell

April 07, 2021

Studying Shakespeare at medical school would encourage the next generation of doctors to adopt a more empathic approach to their patients, a palliative care specialist has suggested.

Dr David Jeffrey says health professionals are used to adopting an emotionless state of 'detached concern' for patients, exaggerated even more by the current COVID pandemic with the need for PPE, social distancing, and video consultations.

Encouraging Empathy

Writing in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine,  he argues that faced with these challenges, a study of Shakespeare's plays could be a creative way of teaching medical students how to connect with patients.

Dr Jeffrey, from the Department of Palliative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, says Shakespeare was familiar with plague, even spending time in 'lockdown' when theatres were closed.

Drawing on references from King Lear, The Tempest, and As You Like It, Dr Jeffrey writes: "It is remarkable that Shakespeare's work remains relevant today. It seems that he had an ability to anticipate our thoughts, particularly in times of crisis."

The Bard's era – before the scientific revolution – may have worked to his advantage, allowing him to "develop his empathic approach without having to view the mind through a mechanistic scientific lens".

He says human relationships "are constrained by the inaccessibility of other minds," and that "any conclusions about another's mind must rely on human interpretation".

The "defining gift" of Shakespeare "is his empathic approach", says Dr Jeffrey. "Shakespeare speaks through times of crisis, underlining the centrality of empathic human relationships." He suggests including a module on the playwright during medical training, as "focusing on empathy and the nature of suffering would offer students ways of transcending themselves and connecting with the inner world of others".

Reflective Practice

Central to his works is the way that Shakespeare depicts the world from the other person's point of view, not just their understanding, but their emotions and their moral perspectives, Dr Jeffrey argues.

He writes: "Shakespeare's approach creates a space for interpretation and reflection, to experience empathy. Creating such a space for reflection is a central part of clinical practice and medical education."

While noting examples of how drama modules have been used in medical teaching, including in palliative care, Dr Jeffrey says that studying Shakespeare could "encourage students and doctors to engage a psychosocial perspective when thinking about the patient's story, stimulating their ability to see the world through the other's eyes.

"Shakespeare's plays can extend understanding of patients' suffering by developing imaginative reflective practice and extending clinical curiosity".

Shakespeare’s empathy: enhancing connection in the patient–doctor relationship in times of crisis, Jeffrey D, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. Paper.


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