Medical Humanities

Learning to look is learning to love.

Avigdor Arikha

Learning to look, cultivating ways of seeing, can allow us to perceive our world’s complexity. Perhaps it will always remain impossible to reach a conclusive answer on the nature of reality, but I would contest that striving to perceive in the most robust and multidimensional way possible, once superimposed and pieced together, can allow us to better understand at least our own realities- and perhaps other people’s. This can provide comfort, inspiration and even the motivation to keep on living to keep on questioning. On my umpteenth post on Art and Medicine on this blog ( at this rate just keep expecting more), I’m going to introduce the notion of medical humanities. What is it? What does it strive to do? Potentially I’ll throw in some examples that, my *avid* blog readers, I would love to discuss with you.

Isn’t it a shame that in the field of Medicine, one that deals with the human condition in the most practical way possible, that some doctors don’t act ‘human’? Professionalism, though built on the well founded basis of the desire to provide the best form of patient care, stifles the medical worker as a human being and consequently can impact the care of their patients negatively. Burnout is a massive issue facing doctors in the UK these days, especially with the strain the pandemic is placing on health services. We can theorize the reasons behind burnout all day ( perhaps a future post?), but I would like to propose two main reasons: 1. an alienation between the ‘labor’ doctors do and their ‘production’ of meaningful patient impact 2. An inability to process an onslaught of emotionally draining experiences.

Medical humanities offers tools to investigate the experience of illness, and being in a healthcare environment, whatever role you are playing ie patient, consultant, nurse, porter. Using an exploration of Art, entryways are forged to explore the emotional toll of such environments. Importantly, medical humanities as a discipline has a different method of interrogation to that of the sciences. There is no conclusive answer reached when investigating the experiences of FY1 junior doctors during the coronavirus pandemic, rather there is a mode of interrogation which facilitates a comfort with ambiguity and not knowing. Portraits, landscapes, music and poems can provide the ticket to understand issues that have a profound impact on patient outcomes in using a methodology unique from empirical research. Medical humanities can teach a clinician to become an expert, to tackle the intangible, in ways that just refining technical skills can’t do on it’s own.

So much of ICU is making sense, sometimes we need to move and our perception needs to change not that of a patient.

The medical humanities also have the effect of highlighting the political nature of Medicine. Within a healthcare setting it has the potential to minimize extortionate hierarchies by leveling the field of experience, not due to technical knowledge, but to a universally human one. The scrub nurse can feel suffering to the same degree as the neurosurgeon, they can both read books on the patient experience of living with a neurological condition, they both understand the high pressure of the operating theatre. Atul Gawande, in his book ‘The Checklist Manifesto’ noted that cohesion and good communication between all parties during surgery, has a major effect on improving outcomes. The potential is there to implement Art to restructure communication and understanding in the professional environment.

Strategies to facilitate the discussion 

not be a poem pusher. Are team in the place to receive this knowledge? Not assessment of skill level. Team building exercise different way of knowing and existence. 

Hierarchy levelling

Leader of exercise is vulnerable

Feelings not spoken about. Find ways to get trainees to talk. Hold silence. 

Bit of a tangent, but I got distracted and watched the trailer of ‘The Secret Garden’ (2020) coming out next month and it gave me goosebumps. I read the book when I was younger, and honestly I don’t remember much of the details. But after watching the trailer which revived some memories, it is about healing, doing the impossible, how illness affect the family and children. Healing is magical , fantastical, and the scientific side of Medicine can sideline that. Medical humanities can bring it together, weld a holistic practice of Medicine. Humans are wonderful. Honestly things like this warm my soul, I just want to take art wonder and hope to all patients. Art Art Art. Perhaps in another universe I would be an Arts student. But I like the applied nature of medicine and the wide skill set you gain from studying it. It provides you with skills that will be use to a lot of people. Massive tangent- anyway back to the post and STOP dancing to Aurora’s song for it.

Practicing medicine without social advocacy is like piloting a plane without looking out the window.

Patients come from a world outside the hospital. Their lives and health are influenced by a multiplicity of social factors, and medical humanities can be used as a tool to amplify that aspect of clinical practice. Humanities include philosophy and political sciences, and Art pieces (arguably:) can’t be divorced from their social contexts. Interrogating, actively engaging and criticizing power structures, is a skill which I personally think is indispensable for physicians. Medical humanities promote professionals to be more observant of humanity, and its dynamics when walking into rooms.

Art counters need for immediacy of answers, cultivates patience, better together communal understanding multidisciplinary team, ability to integrate multiple perspectives

To round of this brain fart, doctors should learn to look, to love their patients. In a … non weird way.. loving is important. Bringing empathy and care as a valued facet of clinical encounters. Love recognizes and I think Berger’s question is unendingly important:

How does a doctor begin to make an unhappy man feel recognised?

A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor

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