Robert Burns to help medical students become better doctors

Working long, hectic shifts in accident emergency departments, or having a waiting room full of patients leaves little time for busy doctors to stop and think about the greater meaning of life.

The work of Robert Burns will be used to help improve the training of new doctors. Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

But today sees a gathering of experts who will explore how the poetry of Robert Burns and insights from the arts, literature and music can be used alongside lessons in pharmacology and pathology to help medical students become better doctors.

The meeting led by the former chief medical officer Professor Sir Kenneth Calman and Professor John Gillies, former chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners in Scotland, at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh, will include representatives of all the medical schools in Scotland.

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As well as work by Burns, experts say lessons can be learned from a range of writers including Glasgow-born poet Iain Crichton Smith and the Russian playwright Anton Chekov, who himself worked as a doctor.

It will look at innovative ways, including apps and social media, of “distilling” the essence of the humanities down to the medical profession, teaching them skills such as avoiding burn-out and remaining compassionate.

One such initiative which started three years ago, has been presenting every newly qualified doctor in Scotland with the book of poems Tools of the Trade.

The volume is divided into sections such as “looking after yourself” and includes work by doctor poets, some in Gaelic, with translations, and Scots.

An extract of the Burns work An Epistle to John Lapraik alludes to the modern-day coping technique of mindfulness and drawing inspiration from what seems like the everyday grind.

Burns wrote:

Gie me a spark o’ nature’s fire,

That’s a’ the learning I desire; Then tho’ I drudge thro’ dub and mire

At pleugh or cart,

My muse, tho’ hamely in attire,

May touch the heart’.

Sir Kenneth Calman, who has been one of the pioneers of in the development of using creative literature and the humanities to teach medics, said: “Our aim is to encourage the doctors of today and those of the future to consider the patient as well as the illness.

“We want to support doctors to realise that while writing prescriptions may be easy, coming to an understanding with people is difficult.”

Prof Gillies said: “There are many examples in literature which can be used to complement formal medical teaching, bringing a richness of understanding with them.

“A good example is how the poet Edwin Muir who suffered major mental health problems when he came down from Orkney to Glasgow, was treated by a doctor in Govan and went on to achieve so much because someone was there to listen to him in his time of great need.

“There are also Iain Crichton Smith’s poems about ageing and coping with getting older.”