Tuesday, March 27, 2007

History and the health sciences

During this spring break week for many of Oregon's students (including most of our own here at OHSU), it is perhaps a good time to step back from what we're doing here in Historical Collections & Archives and ask: why? What is the purpose of maintaining these collections for study? In a world of fast-paced discovery where today's state-of-the-art is tomorrow's quaint solution, what purpose can study of the history of the health sciences possibly serve?

Luckily for me, others have considered this question and put forth eloquent statements. The American Association for the History of Nursing, for one, has developed a position paper, "Nursing History in the Curriculum: Preparing Nurses for the 21st Century" (2001). The paper states, in part:
All nursing students will face challenges in the next decades as they respond to the complexities of health care and the knowledge explosion of the 21st century. These challenges will require new approaches to nursing education.... Creative approaches will be necessary to enhance student's cognitive flexibility and receptivity. Critical choices will have to be made. While debate continues concerning the technical elements that should be present in nursing education, the temptation to base curricular decisions on technical knowledge, overlooking the relevance of other elements, is short sighted. Nurses in the 21st century will need more than sheer information; they will need a greater sensitivity to contextual variables and ambiguity if they are to critically evaluate the information they receive....

The content of nursing history is only one aspect of its contribution to the profession today. Nursing history also serves to expand students' thinking, and provides them with a sense of professional heritage and identity. Moreover, the addition of historical methodology to doctoral courses serves to broaden the students' repertoire of research skills....

Moving beyond quantitative research methods, the qualitative skill of conducting social history can enrich both the research of the scholar and the students one teaches. Moreover, communicating the complex contextual issues related to an historical topic is a challenge to the writing skill of any scholar, and enhances one's ability to think critically.

In summary, including nursing history into the curriculum will allow us to educate rather than "train" our students. In so doing, we will give them a sense of professional identity, a useful methodological research skill, and a context for evaluating information. Overall, it will provide students with the cognitive flexibility that will be required for the formation and navigation of tomorrow's health care environment. [Emphases added]
This, of course, is true for medicine, dentistry, and the rest of the allied sciences--in fact, is true for any specialized field of study. The challenges presented by the historical record force us to think, every day, creatively, critically, deeply, and seriously. And that's a powerful remedy for the instant information gratification addiction fueled by the web and other technologies.

No comments: