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The Rediscovery of Medical Humanities

Public Health in the National News


The Rediscovery of Medical Humanities
by Virginia Aita, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Health Promotion, Social and Behavioral Health

A renewed interest in the medical humanities arose with the bioethics movement in the 1970s. The medical humanities consist of works of history, literature, philosophy, and religion that intersect with the healing arts. In an age that has witnessed the enormous growth of medical knowledge and technology, one might wonder why the interest in the medical humanities? The reasons relate to what it means to be a patient.

Health care has become ever more specialized, while diagnostic and treatment technologies have become increasingly complex. Health care providers’ and patients’ relationships can seem distant and fragmented as a result. The “brave new world” of health care called for a corrective, and it came in the rediscovery of the humanities. Works in the humanities, whatever their format, explore the human condition at its many stages.

By reflecting on such works, one may creatively question not only the topics examined, but one’s own circumstances and concerns. This can lead to an appreciation of human differences and the ambiguity that life presents. Learning to live with the tensions inherent in life circumstances and health care situations is an important skill for both care providers and patients as they learn to find their voices in the choices that must often be made amid uncertainty.

A recent UNMC project incorporating ideas drawn from the medical humanities is the Portraits of Care Study, in which a portrait artist drew and painted patients and caregivers. Researchers studied the portraits for what they conveyed about the human dimensions of care as visually expressed by the study subjects. The portraits, along with subjects’ narrative data, showed the transformations that care and caregiving involve.

The medical humanities are also used in the classroom, including the use of historical photos, artworks, novels, and nonfiction histories to stimulate discussion of medical and public health issues and circumstances. For example, the recently published book by Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, tells the true story of a young, poor African American woman whose cervical cancer cells were among the first to be successfully grown in tissue culture in the early 1950s. These cells became the workhorse of tissue culture research in the United States and all over the world, yet neither Henrietta Lacks nor her family gave consent for her cells to be used, nor reaped any reward for the commercialization of her cell line.

This story is just one of many that speak to the history of American medicine, public health, and biomedical research and the many bioethical and legal issues they may raise, such as the impact of racism on population health and health care, the intersection of religious faith and human health, and the effect of poverty and the absence of health literacy on care. The medical humanities provide resources to study how history, culture, narrative and religious traditions, visual representations, and the ethical and legal aspects of any given situation mingle and intersect within the realm of health care.

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