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CONTEXT  There is increasing interest in establishing the medical humanities as core integrated provision in undergraduate medicine curricula, but sceptics point to the lack of evidence for their impact upon patient care. Further, the medical humanities culture has often failed to provide a convincing theoretical rationale for the inclusion of the arts and humanities in medical education.

DISCUSSION  Poor communication with colleagues and patients is the main factor in creating the conditions for medical error; this is grounded in a historically determined refusal of democracy within medical work. The medical humanities may play a critical role in educating for democracy in medical culture generally, and in improving communication in medical students specifically, as both demand high levels of empathy. Studies in the science of communication can provide a valuable evidence base justifying the inclusion of the medical humanities in the core curriculum. A case is made for the potential of the medical humanities – as a form of ‘adult play’– to educate for collaboration and tolerance of ambiguity or uncertainty, providing a key element of the longer-term democratising force necessary to change medical culture and promote safer practice.

CONCLUSION  The arts and humanities can provide important contextual media through which the lessons learned from the science of communication in medicine can be translated and promoted as forms of medical education.