Medical Students’ Exposure to the Humanities Correlates with Positive Personal Qualities and Reduced Burnout: A Multi-Institutional U.S. Survey

Salvatore Mangione, Chayan Chakraborti, Giuseppe Staltari, Rebecca Harrison, Allan R. Tunkel, Kevin T. Liou, Elizabeth Cerceo, Megan Voeller, Wendy L. Bedwell, Keaton Fletcher, Marc J. Kahn

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

94 Scopus citations


BACKGROUND: Literature, music, theater, and visual arts play an uncertain and limited role in medical education. One of the arguments often advanced in favor of teaching the humanities refers to their capacity to foster traits that not only improve practice, but might also reduce physician burnout—an increasing scourge in today’s medicine. Yet, research remains limited. OBJECTIVE: To test the hypothesis that medical students with higher exposure to the humanities would report higher levels of positive physician qualities (e.g., wisdom, empathy, self-efficacy, emotional appraisal, spatial skills), while reporting lower levels of negative qualities that are detrimental to physician well-being (e.g., intolerance of ambiguity, physical fatigue, emotional exhaustion, and cognitive weariness). DESIGN: An online survey. PARTICIPANTS: All students enrolled at five U.S. medical schools during the 2014–2015 academic year were invited by email to take part in our online survey. MAIN MEASURES: Students reported their exposure to the humanities (e.g., music, literature, theater, visual arts) and completed rating scales measuring selected personal qualities. KEY RESULTS: In all, 739/3107 medical students completed the survey (23.8%). Regression analyses revealed that exposure to the humanities was significantly correlated with positive personal qualities, including empathy (p < 0.001), tolerance for ambiguity (p < 0.001), wisdom (p < 0.001), emotional appraisal (p = 0.01), self-efficacy (p = 0.02), and spatial skills (p = 0.02), while it was significantly and inversely correlated with some components of burnout (p = 0.01). Thus, all hypotheses were statistically significant, with effect sizes ranging from 0.2 to 0.59. CONCLUSIONS: This study confirms the association between exposure to the humanities and both a higher level of students’ positive qualities and a lower level of adverse traits. These findings may carry implications for medical school recruitment and curriculum design. B[Science and humanities are] twin berries on one stem, grievous damage has been done to both in regarding [them]… in any other light than complemental.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)628-634
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of general internal medicine
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2018


  • Ambiguity
  • Burnout
  • Empathy
  • Humanities
  • Medical education
  • Wisdom

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Internal Medicine


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