"Soft and fluffy" – what medical students think of their psychology lectures

From helping with patients’ stress levels, to their adherence to treatment, psychology is now recognised as vital not only to mental health care but to physical health care too. In fact, it’s impossible to draw a clear line between the two. As such, psychology has become a core component of curricula for medical students around the world. But though the importance of psychology is recognised officially by teaching bodies, it’s not clear that jobbing medical lecturers have the same opinion. In turn, their scepticism may be influencing medical students.

Based on interviews with 19 medical students in Ireland (10 women and 9 men who receive lectures from a health psychologist), a team led by Stephen Gallagher has identified a range of negative attitudes towards psychology held by the students.

Although some recognised the importance of the subject, others said it was “supplementary”; “soft and fluffy; “airy fairy” and “waffly”.  There was a common feeling that psychology isn’t scientific and not as important as biomedical subjects on the medical course. “There is not a lot of hard and fast evidence,” said one student.

Officially the students recognised that they were supposed to “think about the bigger picture, not just about pills …” but at the same time, there was a sense that the medical teaching faculty “played down” the importance of psychology. This belief was reinforced by the informal way that psychology is assessed, via problem-based learning in class, rather via formal exam.

The situation also appeared to be exacerbated by the theoretical nature of the psychology curriculum content: “We need real life examples …, useful … applicable to medicine,” said one student. The students’ feeling that they already have an excessive workload also played a part in negative views toward psychology. “I do not have space for it,” said one. “I don’t attend a lot of lectures,” said another.

A further detail that the researchers didn’t anticipate was a link with future career choices. Some of the students had a belief that psychology was useful if you planned to go into general practice, but wasn’t relevant for specialist hospital medicine. “GPs like psychology … are sort of all huggy wuggy,” said another student.

“Despite changes to the medical curriculum, psychology still struggles to be accepted as a legitimate subject within it,” said Gallagher’s team based on these new findings and previous evidence. “To respond to this challenge, it is the responsibility of all medical educators, not just psychologists, to appreciate and respect the value and contribution of each discipline and sub-speciality to medical education.”

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Stephen Gallagher, Sarah Wallace, Yoga Nathan, and Deirdre McGrath (2013). ‘Soft and fluffy’: Medical students’ attitudes towards psychology in medical education Journal of Health Psychology DOI: 10.1177/1359105313499780

–Further reading–
Students assume psychology is less scientific/important than the natural sciences
Child’s play! The developmental roots of the misconception that psychology is easy

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

3 thoughts on “"Soft and fluffy" – what medical students think of their psychology lectures”

  1. It's a slightly defensive reaction, but it'd be interesting to see how much variation there was across different programmes and countries.

    There's 'human factors' stuff as part of medical training in some parts of the UK as well (and I assume elsewhere). It'd be interesting to know how that – as a form of psychology training that's perhaps more obviously relevant to working in surgical teams for example – is perceived.

  2. i found this article interesting because i find it hard to believe that students feel Psychology is not as important as other health courses. i feel psychology is very interesting too. the fact that psychologist know what parts of brain control different parts of the body amazes me. and its your brain shouldnt you know all about it?

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