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Q & A with Dr. Wendy Stewart, director, Humanities-HEALS

Dr. Wendy Stewart, newly appointed director of the Humanities-HEALS program. (DMNB photo)

A pediatric neurologist from Dundee, Scotland, Dr. Wendy Stewart is the director of the Humanities-HEALS program at Dalhousie. Her role as director allows her to pursue her love of learning, music, education and teaching.

Initially interested in studying veterinary medicine, Dr. Stewart decided to pursue graduate studies in chemistry in the 1980s. During her research on multiple sclerosis and the opportunity to work with the first MRI in Vancouver, she developed a love of medicine and a desire to work with the health care of children.

Following residency and a fellowship, Dr. Stewart moved to Maine. While practicing there, she was invited to attend the grand rounds at the Saint John Regional Hospital by a former colleague—she was offered a position at the hospital during that visit. And with the possibility of a medical school opening in New Brunswick and the opportunity to teach, she accepted.

Where does your interest in the humanities come from?
Since the age of four, I wanted to play the accordion. At the age of nine I was enrolled into the Dundee School of Music and was taught classical accordion. Since then, music has been an integral part of my life.

In my pediatric residency in Halifax, I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Gerri Frager (Humanities-HEALS program director, 2009-2014). Through this friendship, I became involved with the humanities program when I returned to Canada. I learned more about the opportunities and the concepts of the humanities and their impact on medicine and the brain. Specifically, I was intrigued by the how the brain learns and how the arts and music could facilitate learning for different people.

What aspect of the humanities interests you most?
I’m particularly interested in physician health and wellness and the development of a professional identity. It’s about taking care of the whole brain – not just the medical knowledge. Music and other humanities activities activate parts of the brain that aren’t used in recall of factual or logic-based medical knowledge. It also increases the individual’s sense of well-being.

Additionally, there’s an interprofessional teamwork aspect to the humanities: learning and working with, from and about each other and our respective responsibilities. Currently, I’m looking for opportunities in the undergraduate curriculum to see how students of different professions can work together inside and outside of the core curriculum.

What’s the future direction you would like to take the HEALs-Humanities program?
I’d like to see a longitudinal integrated curriculum of the humanities that will weave throughout the four-year undergraduate curriculum and beyond.

This fits best with the professional competencies and clinical skills components of the curriculum. There are medical schools that have integrated humanities courses into the curriculum, but what I’m looking to do is a little different. I want to remove the separation that this is the ‘humanities’ component and have it be included as part of regular medical studies and medicine.

For example, students will be acting out the case in a professional competencies unit versus working from a paper case. These types of innovative and interactive ways to engage students, particularly in second year, are what I’m looking for. I’m also looking at incorporating research projects that add to the four components of:

  • professional identity
  • physician and student health & well-being
  • interprofessional team
  • community learning/engagement

When we enter medicine, we go through a process of developing the identity of a practicing physician. This identity is a reflection of how we see ourselves and also how we're viewed by others. This process is influenced by our life experience, our culture, relationships and role models.

There’s now a strong interest in how we might assist students in their identity development. An academic paper out of McGill University* outlines the process of professional identity formation in the context of medical education. This is going to become more important as we continue to look at ways to identify and remediate issues of professionalism early in training.

You mentioned community engagement. What do you mean?
Community engagement is actually already in the core curriculum. Having students understand their role in providing information on services that can help patients is the goal. Students have a service-learning requirement in the curriculum—I’m looking at developing a sustainable activity that would have them assist the organizations that provide support.

What is your goal as director for the HEALs-Humanities program?         
Dalhousie Medical School’s undergraduate curriculum is already internationally recognized for its humanities program. My goal is to have it be internationally recognized for a longitudinal integrated humanities program in five years. I plan to organize a retreat that will bring students, artists, residents, faculty and others together to brainstorm on how we can achieve the idea of a truly longitudinal integrated humanities program.

Reframing medical education to support professional identity formation.Cruess RL, Cruess SR, Boudreau JD, Snell L, Steinert Y.
Acad. Med. 2014 Nov 89(11): 1446-51