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Why should I care about medical humanities?

24 Oct, 2013

L0027293 The gyri of the thinker's brain as a maze of choices in biomWhat happens if you put a medical historian and a literary scholar on a train together? In this case, you get a book about the way medicine, health and the arts can work together. Victoria Bates is a lecturer in modern history at the University of Bristol and has spent years organising events and promoting collaboration in the field of medical humanities. Here she explains the journey from train to book, and gives us five reasons why medical humanities is more important than you may have first thought.

Medical humanities touches a wide range of different disciplines and it can be hard for those unfamiliar with the field to really grasp what it’s all about. The key elements of medical humanities include inclusivity, interaction, insight, and innovation. But why should you care about medical humanities? Here are five ways in which the medical humanities touch us all, in sickness and in health:

1. Understanding how your body defines you

Medical humanities can help us grapple with complex questions such as: What is the connection between body, mind and soul? Does illness or disability influence your identity? How do you decide what to do with your body after death? These issues affect all of us at some point in our lives. In thinking about them we often draw upon the core principles of the medical humanities without realising it, by reflecting upon the principles of medical ethics, philosophy and human experience.

2. Patient stories can improve medical care

Patient narratives come in a range of forms, from graphic novels to conversations in a clinical setting to memoirs of illness. Listening to these stories helps us to better understand experiences of illness, health and wellbeing. In the 1950s, Michael Balint emphasised that the doctor could be a ‘drug’ due to the psychiatric effect of a positive doctor-patient relationship. Within the newer field of ‘narrative medicine’, doctors are encouraged to give patients the space to tell their stories rather than just to list symptoms. This approach can feed back into practical changes in clinical care, in which a more holistic form of healthcare is practiced.

3. Art shapes health and wellbeing

Libby Wilson, ‘The Patient’

Have you ever wondered who chooses the art in hospitals and why, or how the creation of art can operate in the service of improved health and wellbeing? Charities such as ‘Paintings in Hospitals’ operate to provide hospital artwork for the promotion of recovery. Since the mid-twentieth century, movements in art therapy and arts for health have also grown in strength to address the interconnections between body and mind. Similar processes have been used with medical students as a means for them to engage with the perspectives of patients, often in a challenging as well as an aesthetic way. The Patient (right) is an example of a piece of artwork produced by a medical student in Bristol, as part of their year one general practice placement assignment. Students also engage in other art forms such as literature, poetry, music and dance.

You might have been touched by the medical humanities in clinical care without knowing it!

4. Medicine is part of our culture

Science, medicine, health, illness and wellbeing are ubiquitous themes in popular culture and high art alike. Medical themes in entertainment have often been key drivers of change and consciousness-raising, as in high-profile films such as One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Philadelphia (1993). Medical humanities approaches help us to unpick themes of illness and health, situate them in context and better understand the culture that we engage with daily.

5. Medicine is part of our history

History shows us that medicine is not simply something that you take. It is an important part of society that shapes and is shaped by the world around us, therefore also varies across time, space and place. The history of medicine makes us examine our own cultural assumptions about what constitutes ‘good’ healthcare, and to think critically about what we mean when talking about issues such as ‘medicine’, ‘health’, ‘wellbeing’ and ‘progress’. Such approaches have the potential to feed back into medical care and medical schools have long encouraged students to engage with the history of medicine.

It was an awareness of this widespread influence of medical humanities in our daily and academic lives that led to a conversation on a train between Sam Goodman (the literary scholar) and me (the medical historian) in 2010. We explored what we could learn from each other and discussed what lessons could be taken from medical practice and the arts. These questions resulted in further collaborations, discussions and eventually the publication of Medicine, Health and the Arts: Approaches to the Medical Humanities, which Sam and I co-edited with Alan Bleakley of Plymouth University Peninsula School of Medicine. The informal origins of this project seem fitting – indeed, there is little of greater importance to the medical humanities than an open exchange of ideas. The value of this field therefore lies in much more than academic study. The medical humanities, both historical and contemporary, have significance and impact on all of our lives.

Medicine, Health and the Arts: Approaches to the Medical Humanities is available now from Routledge. The seminar series that formed the basis for this collection was funded with a Wellcome Trust small grant.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Nils permalink
    24 Oct, 2013 11:54 am

    Great article! In my top 5 reasons of why I should care, I would also include the ability of the medical humanities to examine (and articulate) an individual’s subjective experience of health and illness. What does it actually mean – to an individual – to be diagnosed with a life-changing disease? Put very crassly, the biosciences aim to fix, while the medical humanities aim to express.

  2. 24 Oct, 2013 12:04 pm

    Thanks, I completely agree.

    Part of the value of the medical humanities is that it addresses the fact that healthcare is not entirely an instrumental field, that it involves beliefs, values, meaning and culture. Therefore it doesn’t just involve the sciences, it also properly involves the humanities.

    What does it mean to be healthy and flourishing? How have different individuals and cultures defined those states? What should the ethical goal of healthcare systems be? How do an individual’s beliefs, values and culture affect their emotional and physical health? How can we change a person’s beliefs and values – and should we?

    The more the healthcare sector considers such humanistic questions, the more it can avoid an overly-mechanistic approach to persons. It can move from treating them as malfunctioning machines to treating them as persons whose beliefs, attitudes, emotions and experiences matter – both to treatment outcomes, and in their own right.

  3. Dan O'Connor permalink
    24 Oct, 2013 3:35 pm

    Marvellous article; fully agree with all of the points. To me, medical humanities are the tools and inspiration for thinking critically about the ways in which biomedicine shapes and mediates our personal and social experiences of illness and health. Understanding that neither illness nor health is a natural or neutral state, and exploring the ways in which they are constructed is, to me, one of key achievements of humanities scholarship.

  4. Lauren permalink
    25 Oct, 2013 12:09 pm

    Great article Victoria! While persuasive arguments, such as this, succeed in offering a robust challenge to it, an assumption still persists that the medical humanities fails to generate impactful research. The potential for impact is precisely why I care about the medical humanities.

    The impact of medical humanities research is most transparent when it speaks to contemporary issues in medicine and health; designed to directly inform policy and clinical practice (and there is plenty of this about). But in expressing and narrating the experience of medicine and health throughout time, the medical humanities also stimulate curiosity, conversation and broad engagement where raw science does not. In valuing difference, addressing the individual, and problematising medical norms and values, the medical humanities proves itself an essential companion to the biosciences. The effectiveness (or impact!) of a biomedical intervention can only be enhanced by its engagement with a discipline that celebrates the heterogeneity of its reception.

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