Medical Humanities: A Bridge into the Human Experience

Illustrated by Haley Pak

For most, trust in the symbolic white coat relies on a trust in modern healthcare as a field driven by scientific advancement. Patients await life-saving therapies as physicians perform under bureaucratic pressure for both cost-effectiveness and quality of care. In a world where data adjusts the standards by which healthcare is measured, how can we understand and dissect the human experiences of pain, suffering and healing?

One place to start would be recognizing the enormous contributions that fields within the humanities have made to characterizing the medicine we know today. After all, the Hippocratic oath lacked any reference to a “do no harm” tenant until medieval German physicians adjusted the ancient text to adhere more closely to religious pillars [1]. As one of the first surgeon-physicians, Galen’s advances in understanding human anatomy laid the foundation for the art and imagery found in medical handbooks well into the Renaissance, over 1300 years into the future [2]. Interdisciplinarity was a common theme amongst these fathers of modern medicine; Aviccena, who combined Greek and Islamic medical advances into the five volume “The Canon of Medicine” which served as a textbook for physicians until the 18th century, also paved the way as one of the greatest Islamic philosophers of his time [3]. Wielding a knowledge of such historical contexts allows for effectively understanding the unique developments of Eastern and Western medicine and how to draw from both branches for integrative therapies [4]

Spanning across the humanities (philosophy, ethics, history, comparative literature and religion), social sciences ( psychology, sociology, anthropology, cultural studies, health geography) and the arts (literature, theater, film and visual arts), the medical humanities involve the application of interdisciplinary explorations within these subjects to medical practice [5]. The term was coined during the 1970s as mainly American medical educators sought to combine scientific and humanistic perspectives for more holistic analytical methods in medical practice [6]. Although the medical humanities have since spread globally, there are still largely different approaches on how exactly to incorporate a satisfactory representation of the breadth of these fields within a medical curriculum. A student at Lund University in Sweden taking a medical humanities elective characterized their educational experience as, “a little background structure to think about things… The thing is, if you don’t have concepts, if you don’t have words, you can’t discuss it in a sensible way” [7].

In order to appease those who question the utility of such interdisciplinary work, proponents of the medical humanities often refer to the capability of the field in developing morally conscious and emotionally intelligent medical professionals who approach their “doctoring” duties with empathy, respect and altruism [8]. Yet, Dr. Jennifer Arch, an English Professor within the Medical Humanities Minor at Washington University in St. Louis, explains her perspective of the field’s purpose as one of promoting “a greater understanding between people in general through close reading of those works of literature, history and other arts that explore the human experiences of pain and suffering.” Although these works may portray physicians and patients in a typical setting, Arch also describes works that “show how illness and disease can affect individuals who suffer from (but also frequently learn from) them.” 

Furthermore, Arch describes how lessons from the medical humanities can transcend from the professional world into our personal lives with the COVID-19 pandemic: “People trying to understand the COVID pandemic have sought to learn from epidemiologists and public health officials; they have also turned to novels like Camus’s The Plague. The latter, even if inaccurate in its scientific and medical details, has helped many readers think through what they have experienced over the past year.” Understanding the way in which society responds to disease through this lens can also provide key insights from which to build better responses to death and tragedy in a multitude of other scenarios. 

Given the breadth and importance of the medical humanities, it is no wonder that many undergraduate students at Washington University are looking to dive deep into academic and extracurricular opportunities. The Medical Humanities minor has received more interest from across the undergraduate student body. Arch, who teaches courses such as “Writing and Medicine” and “Literature and Medicine,” further encourages those with diverse interests to explore the themes of the medical humanities within their coursework: “I make an effort to welcome all students – not just those on pre-health tracks – to my courses in English and the medical humanities… Although it is common in the academy today to view disciplines in isolation, I do not see science, literature, medicine and the arts as separate areas of study.” 

Another opportunity to explore one’s interests in the medical humanities on an undergraduate level is joining Quill and Scalpel, an undergraduate student organization seeking to understand how the humanities impacts healthcare. Among Saturday afternoon meetings, this student group dissects media, analyzes key issues and promotes discussion of medical humanities concepts. Quill and Scalpel also hosts service events, like partnering with Unity Hospice for a Pen Pal Program, and connects with university-wide groups, like the WUSM MedHum Interest Group, to gain exposure to applied experiences within the medical humanities fields. 

Although the medical humanities may still seem like a distant branch of academia to some, Arch finds that any student can relate to and engage with the works she presents in class. Case in point: Tolstoy’s “Death of Ivan Ilyich.” Arch notes, “The story may encourage doctors and pre-meds to consider how a physician’s arbitrary use of power might have an influence on a patient who is suffering both physically and morally, but I hope that the text actually causes all readers to think about the effects of chronic pain on an individual’s experience.” 

Edited by: Morgan Leff
Illustrated by: Haley Pak

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