Dentistry Should Value the Humanities

  • by Sonal Kumar ,
  • May 21, 2018, 15:13 PM

I just listened to a podcast episode with Emmy- and Golden Globe-winner Alan Alda, who told a story about a bad experience with his oral surgeon.

The surgeon said one of the complications Alda would experience after undergoing his procedure was “tethering.” As an American author, director and screenwriter, science was a foreign language to Alda so he asked what that meant and the surgeon tried, but failed, to explain the complication. In the episode, Alda says that doctors spend decades learning information, but they are never taught how to communicate that knowledge to their patients.

The story struck a chord with me.

As a second-year dental student, I am in a period of transition from the classroom to the clinic. As a writer and a student with a strong liberal arts background, communication is my strength. For me, learning science is monotonous, but meeting and talking to patients fires me up. It is the reason why I love the profession of dentistry. Often when I am assisting my classmates, I feel mortified for them because they struggle immensely with talking to their patients. Having a basic, normal conversation with a new person seems like a Herculean feat for some of them.

Dental schools try to find students they believe will make good doctors. But they sometimes miss the mark. Judging by how my classmates interact with patients in the clinic, I would say the dental school admission standards and curricula need some rehabilitation. A good student does not always make a good doctor. There’s a huge difference between getting perfect grades and being personable.   

I understand that there is not enough time nor space in the dental school curriculum to teach students how to communicate, be empathic and stress the importance of clinical competence. But, a possible solution would be to incorporate more humanities classes into the dental school curriculum.

It is my liberal arts education that enhances my interpersonal communication skills and allows me to have meaningful conversations with patients. Despite the fact that humanities may seem hard to define and incompatible with the scientific approach, it is extremely valuable.

A paper in the Journal of General Internal Medicine investigated medical students’ exposure to the humanities and found an association between exposure to the humanities and a higher level of personal qualities such as empathy, tolerance for ambiguity, wisdom, emotional appraisal, self-efficacy and spatial skills. Equally important, humanities exposure was inversely correlated with burnout. In the paper, the authors defined humanities as: “engaging in visual arts, singing, playing musical instruments, listening to music, dancing, writing for pleasure, reading for pleasure, attending theater, going to museums/galleries and attending concerts.”1

Our colleagues in the medical profession have determined there is great value in the soft sciences, referring to these hybrid areas of study as narrative medicine and medical humanities.

It’s time that dentistry follows suit.

Sonal Kumar is a third-year dental student at the University of Buffalo, New York, and a freelance writer. 


  1. Mangione, Salvatore. “Medical Students’ Exposure to the Humanities Correlates with Positive Personal Qualities and Reduced Burnout: A Multi-Institutional U.S. Survey.” Journal of General Internal Medicine, vol. 33, no. 5, pp. 628-634.
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