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Music from and for the heart

Music or medicine: why not both?

Dalhousie University has integrated these two seemingly opposite paths into Music-in-Medicine.

The program has evolved under a man who has accomplished more in his lifetime than most could hope for. Officer of the Order of Canada. Former Nova Scotia health minister. Cape Breton-born piper. Not to mention the plethora of awards and acknowledgements of achievement. Dr. Ronald Stewart’s CV reads a life of accomplishment, dedication to community and a passion for music.

What really drives Stewart is his ability to teach medicine through music.

“Music does have a certain element we can use for teaching purposes and for purposes that we believe are important to the understanding and practice of medicine,” says Stewart.

As an example of music’s role in medicine, Stewart tells the story of the invention of the stethoscope. A musician, R.T.H. Laënnec, created the tool and later became the first pulmonary physician.

“We now do not attempt to teach facts. Instead we teach where to go to get facts, and how to problem solve, because with constant advancements in knowledge and technology the facts are always changing,” says Stewart.

Although the humanities have always been a part of medical education, they have only been drawn to the forefront of medicine over the past couple decades.

“With the advancements of technology (physicians) are facing ethical challenges that were not in existence back in the 1950s and 1960s,” says Stewart. “For instance, reproductive technologies, euthanasia and artificially prolonging lives.”

Understanding a deeper region of ethics is essential to the practice of medicine today, Stewart says.
“We want students to learn about their own emotions and how to express them. It is important for a physician to be able to express themselves; the appropriate touch, look and communication.”

The program helps medical students develop the expression and observation skills crucial to the practice of medicine. Chorale singing is proven to decrease stress levels, providing a release from the demands in professional education.

Music is inherent in medical practice, he adds.

“When (physicians) examine people, they are listening quite often to musical sounds. They listen to the heart sounds, which are musical sounds produced by vibrations.”

The Music-in-Medicine program involves a more active relationship between students and faculty members. It’s also tailored to the participants of that particular year.

“If there are students who play a certain instrument or have a certain talent or interest, we try to incorporate that into the program” says Stewart.

The program is home to the male acapella group the TestosterTones, the chamber choir The Ultrasounds, the Dalhousie Medical School Chorale and even a Celtic band that jams in the University Club.

It has an enrollment of about 150 medical students, mostly first- and second-year. But about 90 per cent of the medical students still have some sort of association with the program. This includes direct and indirect participation, like attending a concert. Faculty members, physicians and alumni are also involved, making the program a big hit in the realms of the medical school.

“People who have a broader outlook of themselves and life in general will practice better observation abilities, and medicine is very much being able to subtly see the signs that might indicate that something is going wrong,” he says. “But mainly it’s the ability to empathize and reach out to people, which is fostered by the humanities.”


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