United Academy

Medical Humanities: Why it’s Important?

Sandip Gyawali

June 29, 2020
Last updated July 15, 2021
KMC Lalitpur


Medicine and Humanities, both are different subjects. Medicine promises to cure humans through modern technology and drugs. Humanities assure to heal beings with art and literature. Though these two disciplines are dissimilar—they are interrelated with humans. We, humans, do a lot of things, we are creative. Through creation, we express the reality and imagination. People love to create art—and love to celebrate it. As a result of this, the fusion of medicine and humanities emerged as medical humanities. It is a new discipline for the world—and is growing popularity throughout the world.

A History of Medical Humanities

The term “Medical Humanities” was coined in 1960 in the U.S., but only gained popularity in 1974 when Professor Joanne Trautman Banks established a course fusing literature and medicine at Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine. After that, American medical colleges started to teach courses combining medicine and humanities. Similarly, medical humanities entered in 1990 in Britain. In Nepal, the discipline entered in 2007. According to Dr. P.R. Shankar, “Manipal College of Medical Sciences (affiliated to Kathmandu University) started the first module of medical humanities in MBBS third, fifth and sixth semester.” Later, in 2008, it was followed by KIST Medical college (affiliated to Tribhuvan University).

The subject of medical humanities is an emerging discipline in the world. People are now understanding that – physicians are also humans. They study medicine because they care about humanity, and physicians also love and care their patients. The study of humanities is relevant to the medical world. Humanities can only be discovered through looking to the world. Medical students also need to learn topics about worldly things—which can only be learned through art and literature.

Credit: National Cancer Institute/Unsplash

The University of Pennsylvania included comics in the English syllabus. They believe visual literacy is important—and it helps students to understand the outer world. For many decades, medicine was only related to hard-work and extensive studying of the human body. Nowadays, the extensive study of books goes parallel with creative understanding. Literature, art, film, and many other creative works are included to create interdisciplinary understanding. Researchers believe that medical humanities will help to create a sound environment of the doctor-patient relationship. 

Difficulty in Understanding

Medical humanities are about humans and humanity. This subject not only practices medicine for the treatment of people but it believes to bring a physician closer with their patients. Humanities try to establish a connection between the “soul”. But the idea is countered by scientists because souls do not exist in science. Richard Dawkins believes that "There is no soul or consciousness as we are the sum total of our genes". The idea of the soul is irrelevant for a science student but humanities believe in the soul. For example, we should look at how a creative writer thinks about the mind, body, and soul:

Rhodora! if the sages ask thee why

This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,

Tell them, dear, that, if eyes were made for seeing,

Then beauty is its own excuse for Being; [The Rhodora]

These lines from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem defies the rules of science because he speaks with the soul of a flower “Rhodora” which cannot talk—and is not a human. If medicine students will read and discover these lines, it might sound absurd for the first time. But, after getting the meaning, it might be interesting. How science teaches the idea of being rational can go parallelly with the humanities’ idea of being emotional. After all, medical students are also humans. Medical humanities teach how to grasp the emotion of a patient and how to understand them.

Importance of the Humanities in Medicine

Art and literature will help to understand the culture. Without understanding the culture, a human is incomplete. In previous years, medicine students suffered in the field because of a lack of understanding about it. Cultural Theorists, Raymond Williams, and Richard Hoggart both emphasized studying literature to understand the culture. Marxists also emphasized this. Neo-Marxist Walter Benjamin in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” talks about art and culture. He says to know the people and their mass culture people should see art—either original or copied.

Sigmund Freud believed that – being creative can help to express our repressed unconscious desires. The pressure of study creates psychological stress in the students which can be released through creative writing, painting, sculpting, and reading fiction or poetry. Medical News Today writes “Several studies have also found that writing—expressive writing, in particular, which requires participants to narrate an event and explain how it affected them—can help people to … manage negative emotions.”

The skills that are important to become a physician can get completed by reading and creating art and literature. With the help of social sciences and cultural sciences, a medicine student can learn how the illness is coped in a particular culture. And, by learning this process, they can implement their understanding through bioscience. The students will also get the ability to interact effectively with their parents—and patients. By reading someone’s autobiography—watching a biography or a performance in the theater medicine students will learn about communication process and culture. It will help them become professional and cherish their career.

Sandip Gyawali is a freelance writer, and he studies M.A English (Humanities) at Central Department of English, Kirtipur.

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