Thursday, 19 April 2012

Medical text books make way for novels, poetry, diaries and letters in the classes of Professor Femi Oyebode.

The Raine Visiting Professor from the University of Birmingham uses literature to teach psychiatry to medical students. "Humanities teach us about life, and diseases manifest in a person's life, not just their bodies," he said.

"The idea that medicine is very technologically-based means the person can easily get lost. You take the bloods, you hook them up to a machine, you don't even look at the patient. All case notes are electronic, so a doctor looks more at a screen that at the patient. It has become callous by default.

"No doctor sets out to be callous, but we need to find a way to remind young doctors to get back to the person, to return to the reason they chose, at the age of 17, to study medicine in the first place: because they want to be with people and to help them."

Professor Oyebode said that, from a very young age, he wanted to be a writer. "But my father wanted me to be a doctor. ‘You can teach yourself to be a writer - you can't teach yourself medicine,' he said."

And he was right. The Professor of Psychiatry is a poet and critic and has published seven books of poetry. He has also contributed to The Oxford Companion to 20th Century Poetry.

He presented a Raine Lecture earlier this month on Humanities in Medical Education: Literature and Medicine.

Professor Oyebode sees medicine as an art rather than a science, a profession in which you apply skills to people. "And every person is different," he said. "As psychiatrists, we are trained to understand human beings and this includes understanding ourselves." In the US and the UK, there are some graduate medical schools which accept liberal arts degrees. "St George's Medical School (London University) and Swansea Medical School take graduates of arts degrees, and Swansea in particular has a significant humanities component to their course.

"Durham University has a Professor of Humanities in Medicine, Martyn Evans, a philosopher by training.

"It will be a few years before we see what sort of doctors they produce."

After studying medicine in his homeland of Nigeria, Professor Oyebode chose to specialise in psychiatry, in the UK, "because, conceptually, it is the most interesting field of medicine.

"I chose psychiatry because it is closest to the humanities, because it requires thinking, listening to people and a degree of wisdom - which is different from knowledge," he said.

That wisdom is needed to deal with the stigma that is attached to mental health, not just to the patients, but to their doctors.

"You don't have your patients stride across the room at a party to proudly introduce you to their friends, as they do with, say, their obstetricians," he said. "Some people still believe that psychiatrists can be affected by their patients. I have had some students at the University of Birmingham whose families were shocked when they found out they were studying psychiatry, and forced them to withdraw.

"But as the more serious mental illnesses are unravelled, they will become more accepted. In the 19th century, people were afraid of epilepsy, that it was a form of ‘possession' or that it had some religious significance. But now that it's explained and treatable, it is accepted.

"We have seen it happen already with bipolar. In fact, it has become a fashionable way for some people to explain their actions, and they are asking their doctors to diagnose them as bipolar!"

Professor Oyebode is a guest of Winthrop Professor Aleksandar Janca in the School of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience, for seven weeks.

Published in UWA News , 16 April 2012


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