The University of Southampton
Medical Education

Medical Humanities Student Selected Unit (SSU)


The idea for introducing the Medical Humanities Student Selected Unit (SSU) into the BM5 curriculum came from medical students. In October 2006, eight Year 2 students returned to University one week early in order to take part in a pilot project designed to reflect a typical week of the proposed new BM5 Years 1 & 2 curriculum due to begin the following year.

During this pilot, the students were asked how they would like to explore a medicine-related topic of their own choosing during a half a day each week. This question was posed because it was recognised that Years 1 & 2 needed to include greater choice for students in order to meet GMC recommendations that 25-33% of the curriculum include Student Selected Units (Tomorrow's Doctors, 2003). In response to the students' answers the Medical Humanities and Community Engagement SSUs were created.

Linda Turner, Coordinator


Coordinated by Linda Turner, the Medical Humanities SSU was introduced into Semester 2 of the new 2007/08 curriculum for one afternoon each week. It is compulsory but students choose from a number of options through which to explore human experiences of health and illness and apply these insights to clinical practice. Options are facilitated by teachers from across and outside of the university and include: portraiture, life drawing, multi-media art, photography, film, creative writing, drama, ethics through drama, music and medical history.


Following its first year running, the Medical Humanities SSU was evaluated by an external consultant using focus groups, an internal researcher using observations and end of course questionnaires. Key findings showed that:

  • The overall aims were met;
  • Students and facilitators enjoyed their options;
  • While most students believed that the Medical Humanities SSU would help to make them better doctors, many of them struggled to identify exactly how this would be achieved. This was especially the case when the clinical relevance of the option was not immediately apparent to the students.

This research was presented at the 2008 Association for Medical Education in Europe (AMEE) conference in Prague.

In response to the research findings, the SSU Coordinator and the Medical Humanities facilitators introduced changes. For example, to help students see the clinical relevance of the medical humanities a solo play titled ‘Ball' was performed at the introductory lecture. Written and acted by Brian Lobel, ‘Ball' is the autobiographical story of a young man's struggle with testicular cancer and the health professionals he encounters. Survey results showed that the play helped students to see the clinical relevance of drama and other humanities.


A selection of work produced by students for their Medical Humanities SSU was displayed at a retrospective exhibition titled ‘Tomorrow's Doctors: Imaginative and Engaged' from 13-19 October, 2011 in the Level 4 Gallery, Hartley Library. The Faculty's Enterprise Group funded this event which was opened by the Vice-Chancellor.

I thought that the performance was outstanding. It gave an insight into the experience of cancer in young people and I believe it will affect the way many of us respond with patients who are diagnosed with cancer or with family/friends who may also be diagnosed.

Moving, emotional but also hilarious! Very thought provoking. Highlighted lots of issues I would not have previously considered.

It showed me that patients don't always feel how you expect them to feel and although you may feel that saying certain things to someone with cancer is helpful to them, they can sometimes find it patronising. It is all about getting to know the individual patient.

Tomorrow's Doctors exhibition piece
Artwork by Antony Shinton
Tomorrow's Doctors exhibition piece
Artwork by Helen Aung

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