Medical humanities: what’s in it for patients?

So here’s the thing. No matter how interesting (or otherwise) medical school deans and research grant making bodies  find the work done by medical humanities scholars and educators, the bottom line is (almost) always, what’s in it for patients? How will teaching students using art and literature make them better doctors; how will the insights offered by historians, anthropologists, philosophers etc help ensure that patients get better, more affordable, more appropriate care? Why, in other words, given all the other calls on my time and resources, should I support you and your work rather than focussing on biomedical research?

Probing questions about the practical relevance of research are not of course reserved for medical humanities scholars, with increasing demands-from governments and other funders- to ensure that basic science research translates into tangible, measurable, practical benefits. Superficially appealing as that idea is, there remains considerable concern within the scientific community that  funding for basic science research that cannot be immediately linked to short term benefits will become increasingly difficult to undertake.

These concerns are not, I would argue, the result of blind self-interest. Instead they represent a recognition that many important clinical breakthroughs have in the past been a result of the exploitation of research undertaken for its own sake, with no particular application in mind.

With these two imperatives in mind- on the one hand to maximise the practical impact of research and on the other to ensure that ‘blue-sky’ research flourishes- I note with great interest the theme of the Spring Symposium of the American Society of Biothics and Humanities. 

Entitled “Books to bedside: translational work in the medical humanities”, the symposium takes place on the Northwestern medical school campus in downtown Chicago, USA, April 23rd. 

The aim of the symposium seems to be to explore the proposition that medical humanities programs have the potential to improve  the quality of care patients receive. It sounds fascinating.