How Medicine is Like Education

Everyone’s favorite edu-game is comparing education to medicine. Do teachers garner the same respect as doctors? Should teachers be more like doctors? Is education like medicine?

I have no idea, and I sort of hate this game.*

In 2014 there were ~700,000 physicians and ~1,500,000 kindergarten and elementary teachers, with ~961,000 high school teachers. Which is just to say that there are a lot more teachers than doctors. (Source: BLS BLS BLS)

With the above as a caveat, a few things I recently read about medicine made me think of teaching. Not that they are definitive or representative of medicine, or anything. Just that they made me think. I have no idea how to put all the pieces together, but each made me think that in some little ways medicine might be a bit like teaching.

Doctors Don’t Have Time to Read Research and This Makes the Field Subject to Destructive Fads

I’ve been reading Dreamland (“The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic”) and it’s consistently fascinating. Part of the story is about how the medical profession fell in love with opiate pain-killers after years of caution. How did this happen? Several trends converged, but an important part of the responsibility lies at the feet of the medical profession:

For many years, it was believed that pain protected against the development of addiction to opioid medications.


This false belief (med-myth?) had its source in some bad interpretations of research.


I read this page in Dreamland this afternoon, and the story felt familiar. Even more familiar was this tag to the story: “To actually look up Porter and Jick, to discover that it was a one-paragraph letter to the editor, and not a scientific study, requires going to a medical school library and digging up the actual issue, which took time most doctors didn’t have.”

Could the troubled relationship of research to practice be similar across many fields, and not just in teaching?

Medical School Doesn’t Prepare You for ‘Real Medicine’ and in ‘Real Medicine’ Often There is No Cure

House of God is a novel, a satire. Let’s start there: you shouldn’t take it literally.

It’s also from the 70s, and it is a very 70s book. Everyone’s constantly talking about Nixon. Everybody’s smoking. And everybody is having sex with everybody.

Seriously, when I told my doctor friend I was reading this book he took great pains to explain, You know it’s nothing like that anymore, for one there is way less S.E.X. (He spelled it, to save my toddler the embarrassment of hearing it I suppose.)

OK, so it’s somewhat dated and it’s satire. Still, it has passages like this:

Again, like the day before, most of what I’d learned at BMS about medicine either was irrelevant or wrong.

Sound familiar? Could it be that complaints about the relevance of professional training are more common in medicine than teachers usually think? (The question isn’t rhetorical. Could it be?)

The thing that really caught my attention, though, was this passage:

Talking about medicine, I told him with bitterness about my growing cynicism about what I could do, and he said “No, we don’t cure. I never bought that either. I went through the same cynicism…And yet, in spite of all our doubt, we can give something. Not cure, no. What sustains us is when we find a way to be compassionate, to love. And the most loving thing we do is to be with a patient, like you are being with me.

Which seems to me an entirely correct perspective on teaching as well.

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