14 April 2012

SOC 201: Bedside Manner?

Ugh. This article on changes to pre-med education is making me angry. Let's walk through some choice points:
In addition to the hard-science and math questions that have for decades defined this rite of passage into the medical profession, nearly half of the new MCAT will focus on squishier topics in two new sections: one covering social and behavioral sciences and another on critical analysis and reading that will require students to analyze passages covering areas like ethics and cross-cultural studies. [emphasis added]
So, the social and behavioral sciences are "squishy?"
In surveys, "the public had great confidence in doctors' knowledge but much less in their bedside manner," said Darrell G. Kirch, president of the association, in announcing the change. "The goal is to improve the medical admissions process to find the people who you and I would want as our doctors. Being a good doctor isn't just about understanding science, it's about understanding people." [emphasis added]
So, the social and behavioral sciences are not science?

Yes, absolutely, let's bring the social sciences--and particularly sociology--into the training of our physicians. The way that this is being framed, however, misses the point of doing so. Health and disease are radically social. Race gives us one example of this. Blacks in the U.S. have poor health outcomes compared to whites. For example, blacks are far more likely to suffer from hypertension, even after we take things like diet, income, occupation, eduction, and genetic predisposition into consideration. (See Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick? for an excellent explanation of the social factors in our physical well-being.) Good bedside manner is important, but sociology doesn't teach about this. Sociology makes students aware of the social, but that is no guarantee of sociability. As I've written before, "...[I]ronically, sociology is about the most misanthropic discipline there is. We are the Debby Downers of academia." I'm confident, though, that the inclusion of social science into the medical curriculum will have beneficial outcomes regardless of the misunderstandings of those who implement the changes. The next generation of physicians will have a better understanding of the social causes and consequences of health and disease, and this will be good for all of us.

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