Shifting From Medical To Health Humanities

Medical Health Humanities

What’s the difference between “health” and “medicine” – as in replacing medical humanities with health humanities?  A recent urge by healthcare providers to change those words as modifiers has spurred a variety of responses, from charges of academic nitpicking to sheer bewilderment.

Words definitely matter, although this concept is sometimes overlooked in academic medicine.  

How many thousands of words are written about the meticulous differences between “adherence” and “compliance” for example, or what about the effects of the apathetic and occasionally offensive labels used to refer to patients? Medical educational trends labeled as “competencies,” and “professionalism”  have been over-saturated to the point of misuse.

Over the past 40-plus years, throughout health and medical education, humanities has morphed into something very different from the early doctor-centric curricula focused on exploring doctor experiences through the lenses of traditional disciplinary knowledges and methods such as literature, history, comparative religion, and philosophy.

By the late 20th century, the academic sphere was already experiencing profound cultural and global changes, and the strict boundaries between disciplines started to dissolve with the emergence of inter- and multidisciplinary areas of study.  Included were cultural and women’s studies, disability, postcolonial, and queer studies, drawing from methods of analysis, theoretical orientations, and multiple disciplines.  

More recently, focus has shifted from the doctor as the central focus, to the cultural landscape of patients across complexities of race, class, ability, and gender identity. New technology shifted learning to new platforms of education such as YouTube videos, TED talks, and graphic novels, rendering once privileged and classified informational insight easily accessible to all those who wanted to learn.  

Even more critical to the shift is the fact that humanities are now increasingly relevant in all segments of health professions education, both outside medical schools and inside of undergraduate health professions curricula.  

The very shift in language to “health humanities” proves that illness and all health related phenomena are not just experienced within facilities of “medicine” but are, in fact, lived outside medical settings where doctors play a minimal role.  

The current academic agenda driving interprofessional education is focused on driving improved health outcomes for patients and better collaborative skills for all health professionals.

Joseph Bryant
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