It’s All in How You Frame the Question

Dawna M. Gilchrist, MD FRCPC FCCMG DHMSA
Professor Emerita, Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, University of Alberta
Chair, History & Heritage Advisory Committee

A colleague and I recently presented a workshop at the 2017 International Conference on Residency Education (ICRE). The title of the workshop was “History of Medicine can contribute to physician competency”.

In the almost two decades in which I have been involved in History of Medicine activities, my major interest has been an educational one. That is, the many ways that History of Medicine can be used to inform the practice of medicine – for medical students, residents, and practising physicians whether in early, middle or late careers.

The major complaint I have heard is ‘how can history of medicine possibly be relevant – it’s in the past’. My response is – it’s all in how you frame the question.

Grade 11 History

  1. Who is Galen?
  2. What did Lister recommend?
  3. When was the Great Flu Epidemic?

Names, dates – boring stuff, indeed!

Undergraduate History Course

  1. How did Galen influence medicine in ancient Rome?
  2. How did asepsis change surgery in Lister’s time?
  3. How did the Great Flu affect the post WWI world?

More interesting questions, but all in the past.

A Topic for a Medical Student or Resident Research Project

  1. Analyze why Galen’s influence on medicine lasted for over a millennium. Do some of the factors involved in adopting new medical information still exist today?
  2. Discuss how evolving theories of sepsis and asepsis have altered the practice of modern surgery.
  3. Compare and contrast the effects of the Great Flu and Ebola on the public’s perception of epidemics.

These are the types of questions that really make one think AND require significant research and reflection. Further, the resulting analysis and interpretations can contribute to physician competencies.

So … when someone says to me that History of Medicine is ‘old stuff’ and that memorizing names and dates is a waste of time … I say, “Let me change your perspective – by changing the questions you ask”.