Medical humanities in practice

Authors: Stephanie Matthews, Haris Haseeb, Jennifer Patterson, Bridget MacDonald 

Publication date:  07 Nov 2017


Stephanie Matthews and colleagues look at why you might want to go to a medical humanities conference

With so many courses to pay for as part of your medical training—as well as exams to do and portfolio boxes to tick—why would you want to add to all this by going to a medical humanities conference? What might it mean for you?

Medical humanities are a group of disciplines that relate to medicine, but are not the scientific core of the curriculum. They are an “interdisciplinary and increasingly international endeavour that draws on the creative and intellectual strengths of diverse disciplines . . . in pursuit of medical education goals.”[1] Their remit is wide and includes history, literature, arts, philosophy, and ethics, and their application to medical education and practice.[2]

The area became popular as a possible solution to the “dehumanisation” of medical practice. Throughout the 19th century, the study of medicine became less of an “art” and there grew a greater divide between the science of medicine and the humanities.

Since then, curriculum and practice have become more focused on the technological and biomedical advances in medicine. Students report frustration and a lack of creative stimulus because of the quantity of rote learning required. The study of medical humanities lets clinicians explore their interests, and leads to a more nuanced understanding of the craft of medicine as it is practised, and of the patients we meet. Above all, it broadens horizons and is intellectual fun, refreshingly removed from box ticking.[3]

Career implications

An interest in medical humanities may lead you to undertake research or further training. This offers opportunities to attend conferences and present your findings, and advance in a specialist field. Often such conferences can count towards your non-clinical continuing professional development point quotas. A qualification or interest in medical humanities can also help towards a career in allied areas such as health journalism and media, public health, or policy development.

How to get involved

If you are still in undergraduate education, completing a student selected component would be a good introduction to the medical humanities. This will give you an idea of the area without committing too much of your time. If you’ve already completed a student selected component, or something similar, you could consider an intercalated BSc for more in-depth study. If your medical school does not offer any humanities courses you may be able to arrange something with one of your tutors who might well be working on project that has relevance or you may choose to start a student run society. There are websites to visit for inspiration.

For an introduction to medical humanities, practicing clinicians may consider attending a conference, such as the Association for Medical Humanities annual meeting. You could also do a master’s degree in an area within medical humanities, either taking a year out or completing it part time around your clinical responsibilities. At a less intensive level there are several forums where activities related to medical humanities exist. And even if you don’t choose to commit yourself now, these sites are full of fascinating areas to explore.

A medical student’s perspective of AMH meeting, Haris Haseeb

The Medical Humanities conference, Body Talk: Whose Language? marked my first encounter with medicine outside a traditionally scientific context. At the heart of the conference—a diverse academic forum attended by over 100 historians, artists, theologians, doctors, and students—was an enquiry into the complexities of embodiment, where aspects of “body” talking, listening, and translation were explored.

The foundation upon which Western medicine is built is rooted in the concept of an objective (practitioner) self, and an objectifiable (patient) body. The relevance for doctors, students, and other health professionals of challenging centuries of established perceptions of “body-theory” should not be overlooked.

In some ways, the medical enterprise can be thought of as an institution which, often unwittingly, verifies outdated claims that the body exists solely as an objective phenomenon. If we consider the medical student, for example, confronting corporeality for the first time, they are confined within the walls of the dissection room as if on a stage. An unwitting performer in the theatre of dissection, the medical student’s perception of embodiment is, from its conception, anatomical. Language is made “more objective”—the front becomes anterior, the back posterior. The human disappears, lost in a rich but rigid vernacular where words lose meaning. Medicalisation can obscure different voices, those which are embodied and alive within a story.

Though this might appear overly abstract, Body Talk represented an intersection between the general and medical consensuses. A language scholar spoke of “reading” the body, an art historian spoke of “performing” the body, and a lecturer in technology spoke of “digitalising” the body. Within the context of Body Talk, the doctor-patient dyad was questioned, contextualised, and re-equilibrated by clinicians of many backgrounds, each aiming for a co-created intersubjective clinical and human experience.

They offered perspectives on the ableist, gendered, physiological, psychological, emotional, and theoretical contexts through which a lived body is given meaning in life; perspectives which, understood from a position of strength and shared vulnerability, will directly impact my practice as a future doctor.

Association of Medical Humanities Conference: Sofia 27-29 June 2018

Shadows and Ashes

At which there will be platform presentations and incentives for student participation including prizes, student posters, and reduced rates.

[Link]

Resources

Association of Medical Humanities [Link]

BMJ Blog [Link]

The British Society for the History of Science [Link]

The British Society for Literature and Science [Link]

Graphic Medicine [Link]

Institute of Medical Ethics [Link]

Royal Society of Medicine—history of medicine section, and an undergraduate essay prize

Wellcome Collection—displays of cultural and historical artefacts and anthropology, permanent collection and regular exhibitions on aspects of medicine with commissioned art and talks

Competing interests: We have read and understood BMJ’s policy on declaration of interests and declare the following: we are all members of the Association of Medical Humanities and JP is its vice president. We have presented articles at their meetings.

References

  1. Kirklin D. The Centre for Medical Humanities, Royal Free and University College Medical School, London, England. Acad Med  2003;78:1048-53. [Link]   [Link] .
  2. Blease C. In defence of utility: the medical humanities and medical education. Med Humanit  2016;42:103-8. [Link]   [Link] .
  3. Flexner A. The usefulness of useless knowledge. Harpers (N Y N Y)  1939;179:544-52.

Stephanie Matthews medical student  Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, UK
Haris Haseeb medical student  University of Edinburgh Medical School, UK
Jennifer Patterson senior lecturer in education  Faculty of Education and Health University of Greenwich, UK
Bridget MacDonald consultant neurologist  Croydon University Hospital, UK

 bridget.macdonald@nhs.net

Cite this as BMJ Careers ; doi: