Why should I care about medical humanities?
What 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
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 an intercalated BA in medical humanities that also includes work with other art forms such as literature and poetry. 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.