I have worked in the medical humanities for a number of years, now, and probably the one question that I hear most often is: what is it? I’ve defined it a number a times, a number of ways, but at its most essential “medhum” operates at the intersection of medical practice, medical history, and the studies of social science, ethics, anthropology, literature, and the arts. I like to think of it as a lens for examining health and the human, not just for buttressing medical studies but for looking carefully and analytically at how medicine influences and is influenced by culture. But I’m not principally going to speak about that today; instead, I want to address the second most important question I hear: why is it important?
Actually, that’s not the most accurate representation–it usually doesn’t come as a question at all, but an assumption. Things I have heard from people I’ve met (many of them medical practitioners): Medical humanities is “fluff stuff,” is “not important for the practice of medicine,” is “not real,” or alternatively–it is important, but insignificant enough to be shoe-horned into existing programs as a means of rounding out a doctor’s education. On one hand, there is nothing particularly malicious here. It’s even complimentary in it’s way, and I’ve certainly met a number of physicians and directors trying to incorporate medical humanities in a positive and constructive manner. The trouble is, in an already robust program, you can’t really provide more than add-ons, and, given the strictures already placed on beleaguered med students, these are necessarily going to seem like “fluff.” This would explain the fairly luke-warm reception I get when I present medhum to doctors and residents at hospitals (something I do with some regularity). It’s not hostility. It’s often unintentional. After all, there is respect for what I do or they would not have invited me. The trouble is, you can’t answer “is medical humanities important” until you have radically reconsidered the question.
Not “what is it” or “is it important,” but “what are medical humanities for?” Let’s answer that first, and see where it gets us with the other two.
1. Medical Humanities provides a new way of seeing the connection between health and the human.
It’s for troubling the waters of progressive histories and instead stopping to reflect on the people, the doctors and patients, and what is at stake for them.
2. Medical Humanities can help us see how culture influences and is influenced by medicine.
It’s for stepping outside ourselves, using social medicine, anthropology, and history to see beyond our own culturally informed beliefs.
3. Medical Humanities can provide new means of expression about health and the body, specifically for under-served or unheard populations.
It’s for using the arts and literature not just to make doctors more humane (though this is often a positive outcome), but to provide an outlet for patients, their families, and others about health, body, illness, and medicine. It can be a means of hearing new voices, too, particularly those not “heard” in traditional discussions of medicine.
4. Medical Humanities serves as the basis for a broad, interdisciplinary field and can make important contributions to our understanding of medicine.
It’s for study, for research, for building knowledge. One reason medhum does not “shoe-horn” well is because it represents an enormous field of inquiry. Entire departments, centers, and schools have been dedicated to its study. Then why not just say “arts and sciences?” A reasonable question–but again, slightly wrong-headed. Medical Humanities are not for general education and study, but directed approaches that use the humanities, arts and sciences to critically analyze our relationship to medicine.
These four outcomes help to explain why medhum is important, while helping to elucidate what it is: show, don’t tell. Do, don’t speculate. It’s an active perception, a researched and guided approach. I’ve come at it from history and literature, others have come at it from sociology and anthropology, and still others from medicine and ethics. All of that is allowed. Encouraged, even. The intersection matters–it’s our greatest strength. Rather than assuming medhum to be some small component, some insignificant piece of a wider puzzle, we should see it as a meeting place. Here, we can make connections. Here, we can be heard.
And that’s why it matters.