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.”
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