The Shared Goals and Distinct Strengths of the Medical Humanities: Can the Sum of the Parts Be Greater Than the Whole?

Abstract:

Since the 1960s, faculty from diverse fields have banded together under the banner of the medical humanities, a term which unites art, literature, history, anthropology, religious studies, philosophy, and other disciplines. Arguments for the relevance of medical humanities often emphasize contributions that any of these disciplines can make to medical education, whether those involve empathy, professionalism, critical reasoning, or tolerating ambiguity. The authors argue that the constituent disciplines of the medical humanities are not interchangeable parts, but represent different perspectives and methodologies that offer their own distinct contributions to medical training. Efforts to define a role for medical humanities in medical education should pursue two strategies in parallel. On the one hand, advocates of the medical humanities should continue to make the case for the shared contributions that all of the disciplines can make to medical education. But advocates for the medical humanities should also emphasize the valuable contributions of each specific discipline, in terms that medical educators can understand. The authors illustrate this point by delineating contributions of their own discipline, medical history. Historical analysis contributes essential insights to the understanding of disease, therapeutics, and institutions-things that all physicians must know in order to be effective as clinicians, just as they must learn anatomy or pathophysiology. Analogous but different arguments can be made for literature, philosophy, and the other disciplines that constitute the medical humanities. The field of medical humanities will be most successful if it builds on both the shared and the distinct contributions of its disciplines.