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  • Writer's pictureEivind Engebretsen

Teaching sustainable health care through the critical medical humanities

Updated: May 20

Many medical schools have started to include the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in their curricula. Doctors graduate knowing they shouldn’t prescribe inhalers containing greenhouse gas propellants. But they are ignorant of wider aspects of sustainability, including partnership-building, decolonization, and just transformation.

The standard approach to teaching the SDGs to undergraduates is to present them as worthy and uncontested targets. Who could disagree with eradicating poverty, educating girls, avoiding war, providing good health for all, or averting the climate emergency?

But these questions do not generate black-and-white answers. Transitions to green energy have for example been accompanied by abrupt job cuts, physical and mental distress, displacement, and opposition.

The Centre for Sustainable Healthcare Education at the University of Oslo's Faculty of Medicine takes on a medical humanities approach to the teaching of SDGs that you can read about in our recent Comment published in The Lancet.

Shifting away from the traditional "one-SDG-at-a-time" approach we underscore the entanglements of cultural, economic, biological, and ecological systems. In our educational approach, we emphasize the following key aspects:

1️⃣ Encouraging students to question the very systems that have given rise to the challenges we're striving to overcome. Echoing Audre Lorde's timeless wisdom, ‘The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House’ - we must inspire students to think outside the existing structures. 2️⃣ Empowering students to critically analyze the assumptions, premises, and biases embedded within the current sustainability narrative. This necessitates a transition from a didactic stance ("these are the facts") to a transformative one: "here are the conflicting viewpoints - how would you critically assess them?" 3️⃣ Highlighting the necessity for students to understand that the green transition, if not handled mindfully, can lead to 'green colonialism'. It's essential to safeguard human rights and respect local systems of observation, indigenous practices, and native knowledge.

These principles are reflected in the way various topics are covered in our curriculum, as outlined in the panel below.

You can access the full paper on the Lancet's website.

The accepted preprint version can be located here.

Discover a One-Page presentation of SHE below.

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