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.

  • Deborah,

    One of the ideas I am working on is that, to understand the value of the medical humanities for illness sufferers, it helps to historicize the humanities themselves. Our notion of the humanities derives of course from antiquity, but was mediated in crucial ways by the medieval and Renaissance humanists. The studia humanitatis was the name of an educational program, with the overall ethos being a focus on practical engagement.

    The humanists found lacking the disputations of the Scholastics precisely because their dialectic was not meaningful outside of the cloister (literally) and the rarefied air of the medieval universities. They sought a way of learning and of acting that would encourage everyday persons to cultivate virtue in their daily lives, and they (correctly, in my mind), perceived the centrality of rhetoric to this task.

    In other words, there is a serious case to be made that the humanists themselves were early translational researchers. They sought to apply erudition in the service of virtue, and not simply virtue writ small, for scholars, but virtue in practice, in the shaping of moral communities and societies.

    I think your question is absolutely the right one to be asking, but I also maintain that the medical humanities themselves, properly historicized, contain crucial keys to unlocking some promising answers to this question.

    (cross-posted from Lit&Med ASBH Affinity Group Listserv & Medical Humanities Blog)

    (slightly edited for grammar and content)

  • Deborah Kirklin

    You make a very good case for the importance of grounding our understanding of twenty-first century medical humanities in the broader philosophical and historical context of the place of the humanities. In turn, one of the key contributions that medical humanities scholars can make is to inform understanding of the context-political, social, historical, cultural, personal, economic-within which healthcare is delivered and illness experienced. The doctor-healthcare professional relationship is of course hugely important. Nevertheless, the consequences of an all too common failure to understand the context within which this encounter takes place is evidenced in systemic anomolies in our healthcare system, as well as mutually unsatisfactory outcomes for both patients and professionals in a significant number of those encounters.

  • J. Russell Teagarden

    Indeed the question of whether medical humanities will benefit people with illnesses is important. But why circumscribe that question to medical humanities as effected by physicians or other health care professionals? Why not investigate the value of humanities on the illness experience by exposing people with illnesses to specific humanities works relevant to particular illness experiences? I know that people with illnesses are interested in access to relevant humanities works through a survey of 1,000 people I recently completed (and will perhaps submit to this journal). And, in a companion survey, I found that managers of benefit plans would be willing to help make access to relevant humanities works possible for their members. Thus, there may be ways to generate greater patient benefit from humanities than what is possible through the indirect effects of traditional Biomedicine delivery channels.