Introducing medical humanities: a new, interdisciplinary approach to healthcare

Susan Levine and Steve Reid of the University of Cape Town are lead educators on “Medicine and the Arts: Humanising Healthcare.” This free online course provides an introduction to the emerging field of “medical humanities.” Here, they explain what the field is and why taking an interdisciplinary approach to healthcare is so important.

Susan Levine and Steve Reid - lead educators on the free online course, "Medicine and the Arts: Humanising Healthcare"

In 2013, the National Research Foundation in South Africa recognized the “medical humanities” as a new knowledge field. But what is this new field? And what might it offer?

Defining the medical humanities

Quite simply, the medical humanities is an attempt to move beyond the binaries that have separated the worlds of the medical and the scientific from the domains of the personal and the humanistic.

As Patrick Randolph-Quinney, based in the School of Anatomical Sciences at Wits University, argues in the Mail & Guardian: “I am sure Da Vinci would not have approved of this artificial (and unproductive) dichotomy; for him painting was a science, and to see was to know.”

From disciplines and practices as diverse as cellular biology, fine art, anthropology, public health, performance art, theatre, poetry, music, oncology, comedy, and family medicine, the medical humanities aims to bridge the historical divides between medicine and the arts.

This interdisciplinary approach opens up a space for medical practitioners and humanities scholars to talk about medical pedagogies, and what is too often left out of the curriculum – namely, how to cope with human emotions.

Learning from South Africa

With emerging programs and course offerings in medical anthropology, the medical humanities, global health and the health social sciences at the Universities of Cape Town, the Western Cape, the Witwatersrand, and Stellenbosch University, South Africa is in an excellent position to facilitate conversations that are emerging in medical humanities across the African continent.

The pressing issues to be addressed are in the fields of hospice care, access to primary healthcare, rural health, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, as well as the rise of non-infectious diseases, including cancer and diabetes.

The issues include how medical practitioners are trained and supported; how patients are supported more holistically; how bodies and body parts are conceived of, made use of and disposed of; and how new ways of understanding mind and body are informing the humanities.

Some of the questions we’ll be asking on our course are: how do the arts and the social sciences help us to see health, well-being and health care in new ways? With an interdisciplinary approach, what breakthroughs are possible in situations of resource constraints in Africa? How can the arts enhance or extend the experience of medical care? And what are the particular manifestations of this in South Africa?

To find out more, join “Medicine and the Arts: Humanising Healthcare” now or join the conversation using #FLMedArts.

Category Learning

Comments (58)


  • Naa

    Well I wish to see more often the human face of medicine in my country. I hope this course will lead me to a field,qualification,role that will enable me positively support medical services one day .

  • Thabiso Elias Motsamai

    I have studie BA Sociology and Demography in Lesotho and I have been practicing still life drawing portrait for the length of that degree. Is there any possiblity for me to study Art and Medicine online now?

  • John Imaledo

    The topic for the week is an interesting one. I think the kind of approach we employ in addressing health issues and practice in Africa is one of the major bane to addressing preventable diseases in most African countries. The template the international organisation put in place also in addressing these multi-facet issues often contradict the prevailing social, cultural and religious practice in these countries.

    The orthodox medical practitioners in most Africa countries are also major obstacle to the idea of multi-disciplinary approach in health service delivery. I think we need more empirical facts to show that all fields and professional in the field of humanity have a part to play in health care delivery in Africa. I am total in support of this your unique course. Thank you

  • John Imaledo

    I trust that one will have a lot to gain in understanding the ‘unseen’ aspect of medicine which most clinicians are not comfortable with. I look forward to acquire skills and knowledge that will help me to function better as a public health professional

  • Susan Knighton

    Hi everyone. I am a recently retired Operating Theatre Sister with a long career behind me in the hot seat of management of 4 theatres and many years working up to that. I did a degree in English and the Humanities whilst working and my dissertation was Called “The Sisterhood, the Surgery and the Soul”. The degree came about because I had loved best my time as a Cardiac Sister and the wonderment of a chest being opened has never ceased to amaze me. I wanted, no, actually need to move on from that and to delve even deeper into the mysteries of body and soul.

  • Elizabeth Gracia Endrastiana

    As far as I have followed my own father, who serves as a pastor with some medical training, there are experiences that medical treatments have become effective help when on the same time have also practiced some pastoral and other ‘non-medical’ approach

  • Samuel

    sometimes ago, I did research on how medicine and arts relates together, but it seems not interesting to the researcher to break the boundary between medicine, social and political science and art. I need more clarification.

  • Manmeet

    I am learning how to bridge the gaps between medicine, arts and social sciences and how important it is to bridge this gap.

  • Marta Knight

    I would like to apologise for misusing a word in my post 23/ 07/ 2015 when referring to ‘patients in underdeveloped countries’
    I would like to rectify the word ‘underdeveloped’ when referring to the countries. I should have said ‘developing’ countries.

  • Marta Knight

    I am very much looking forward to participating on a course that advocates the interdisciplinary approach to build bridges between medicine and the arts. Although I am now retired after a long career in teaching Modern Languages at all levels, I am keen on extending my knowledge to the field of ‘medical humanities’. I have had an interest in medicine, health care, classical music and literature ever since I was very young and it is precisely the ‘marriage’ of these subjects which has helped me cope with the emotions attached to the problems of osteoarthritis and osteoporosis which I have been facing for some time. I do agree that there should be a space in the curriculum devoted to ‘medical pedagogies’ so that medical practitioners are trained to deal with the so many complaints the patients, particularly in underdeveloped countries, have to face.

  • Stephanie

    Hello- I would like to participate in this course. When do you expect the course will begin? Looking forward to it. Thanks.

    • OkwyDavis

      Just indicate your interest through the ‘register your interest’ button and FutureLearn will send you an email when it’s about to start. Cheers.

  • David Perrins

    I am so looking forward to this course! I’m a retired young at heart UK based 72 year old with quite a wide background: wood science, interior design, sales & marketing management…my ‘day job’ period, & then: sports injury physical therapy, shiatsu on-site massage, life coach, EFT therapy. You may have noticed something? All hyper-interactive with people, people with problems, issues, poor health, some of them. A people person, some may say.
    Currently studying the Impressionist painter Claude Monet, an exercise in relaxation. Eager to discover the missing links in my knowledge this course will provide, & how to maximize the use of them.

  • Mathews

    Thanks for this free course. I hope I will learn much and I can’t wait getting started.

  • jonathan Vernon

    Such a fabulous course. I’ve been raving to everyone about it. Especially my family in Cape Town 🙂

  • Tara Cawthra

    As a student of Susan Levine’s, I cannot wait to learn more from her. She is the most phenomenal and by far the best lecturer I have encountered thus far. I look so forward to the commencement of this course.

  • Remigius J. Matungwa

    I am a Clinician; General Practioner. That’s an amazing course to join!

  • haleemah

    Pls, am a student cn I also join nd want to study studying microbiology.

  • Terry C

    really looking forward to this course .I have been an arts practitioner for many years working on socially engaged projects.Some of the work has been on the fringes of ” Art Therapy” and some projects were community based theatre events that galvanized and celebrated groups (and the individuals that make up the groups) . I am so happy this discipline of Medical Humanities is being taught. As an artist I feel my role has crossed borders and taken on roles that have connected making art with people a revelation and a joy. as I am getting older….not yet 60! this is a great opportunity to define the context of the artist in enriching the quality of our lives.

  • Sive N

    As an occupational therapy student the concept of medical humanities excited me when I heard about it. This course specifically intrigued me because it brings together all the things I find fascinating. I look forward to learning more about how the arts can enhance the experience of medical care. OT often utilizes art forms in therapy, especially in mental health practice and I firmly believe that it is an essential profession within healthcare although it is often misunderstood or relatively unknown. It deals with the day to day activities people engage in and enhances lives through doing. This course couldn’t have come at a better time and I can’t wait to engage with and learn from people who know way more than me- and hopefully also contribute to bringing a diverse knowledge on the different topics covered in the course.

  • Fasiegha Arendse

    As a Reiki practitioner, I have often grappled with the idea that the diseased PERSON/BEING receiving healing/medical treatment is more important than treating the disease itself. This idea has brought me to the understanding that the real healer is the one who is actually receiving the healing. It feels like I’ve come to the right place to share my ideas to gain deeper understanding. Looking forward.

  • Perry French

    I am looking forward to starting this course as I am keen to engage with others in relationship to this joint discipline. My background is working with people with HIV and I am keen to explore new ways of working and supporting people. For me this course represents my return to studying after many years of just work.

    I am looking forward to getting to know the people who are taking this course and sharing our ideas for the betterment of the people we support.

    I am dyslexic, so prepare yourself for some of my interesting spelling and grammar trip ups.

  • BARRY Noble

    i am very excited been working as an inquest investigator for many years and now starting with my own funeral parlour looks forward to learn new things

  • Hannah

    I am really excited to start this course. I have an artistic background and am a real advocate of interdisciplinary practices. I’m looking forward to learning more about medicine and healthcare and learning from others with different academic backgrounds.

  • Kate Wells

    I am delighted to do this course. Newly retired after being an academic in arts and design for nearly three decades. I have attended and delivered key notes at three Global arts and healthcare conferences. Last year I attended a two week summer intensive in Arts and Medicine at University of Florida and Shands Hospital in Gainesville, Florida. It blew my mind! I am going back in May to further this work. Right now things seem to be happening in CT with Kuils River hospital where I will work with oncology patients. I am passionate about this work. Really looking forward to this online course. Thanks

  • Panganani

    This course has all the hallmarks of a greatly enriching experience. Looking forward to a great experience of sharing and learning.

  • Trijnie

    I am in because I am human,I am a artist,curious,and hoping my english is good enough.

  • Mariola

    thanks for the course, I’m sure you’ve worked a lot to put it on our hands.
    I’m a Family Physician working in Primary Care (for a few years) and recently I’ve finished a degree on Humanities, so I’m very interested in building bridges between my work and my knowledge. I hope to have enough time to work on the course (and enough skills on English language, too).

  • David Cameron

    Today has been very strange. After a very fulfilling career of 41 years as a medical practitioner (family physician with a special interest in end of life care), I woke up this morning to the first day of retirement. I have two reasons for participating in this course. The first is that over the past 6 months my wife, Sue, has been receiving chemotherapy for early breast cancer. Standing in the “shadows” has been a sobering experience. The second is my hobby of painting portraits. Oil paint allows me to explore the ever so familiar and yet so unknown. I see no dichotomy between art and science. As T S Eliot reminds us “to be restored, our sickness must grow worse”(East Coker). I am grateful for modern science that offers “hope” but I am also grateful for art that disturbs and at the same time “comforts” my weary soul. I leave you with Eliot as “the wounded surgeon plies the steel
    That questions the distempered part;
    Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
    The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
    Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.”

    • Steve Reid

      Hi David
      Nice to have you on the course! Thanks for your post.
      Warm regards

    • Diana Fothergill

      I hope that you have enjoyed the firstfewdays of the rest of your life. I retired from NHS practice last year, although I still have an active interest in teaching. Life is very different but Ihave found that I have been able to broaden my horizons, and have discovered these great Future Learn courses which have stimulated me. Stepping back from the coal face has made me think more about the overall care we give, and to see the benefits in greater interactions with the humanities. I am looking forward to being further challenged over the next few weeks.

  • Annie MItchell

    I am a clinical psychologist, in practice in a renal service in a local general hospital, trainer of other psychologists, Playback Theatre Performer, parent of a junior doctor, book club member etc etc etc I am keen to find ways to bring my various identities together in creative ways and this course looks great . I co-wrote -a book many years ago on the therapeutic relationship in health care (see , and I remain very interested in drawing together ideas for holistic care across disciplines and across experiences. I like the title chosen for this course, and especially its base being in South Africa from where I feel sure we in the north ( I live work in England, UK) can learn a great deal. My horizons definitely need stretching! My worry is about whether I will be able to devote enough time to fully benefit. I will try my best!

  • Claudio Ciavatta

    I work in a rehabilitation centre for adult people with intellectual disability and mental health problems. I’d like to study in deep and talk about medical humanities because they are very very important in our clinical practice. I hope to improve my skills and to be able to use them. I have only a problem: my english isn’t perfect, but I hope to improve it too. Thank you very much for this opportunity. I can’t wait to start! Ciao

  • Michael Lyons

    I have been thinkingbalong these very lines for years, but with no way to acknowledge it. I am a classically trained musician, professor and youth orchestra conductor. So glad .i found this. I’m in. Thank you.

  • Lesley Hands

    I am a nurse. I am interested in combing both science and art as a way of healing. Especially interested in the power of human warmth and touch.

  • Lindiwe Vendekete

    I am in . It sounds awesome!!!!

  • Lindiwe Vendekete

    I am in , it sounds awesome!!!

  • Monica Rossouw

    I am a prospective Psychology student. I also volunteer at a mental health hospital in the Western Cape, South Africa. Thank you very much for this opportunity. I can’t wait to start!

    • Mary-Ann Fife (Host)

      Welcome Monica! We’re delighted to have you joining the course and look forward to hearing from you over the next 6 weeks.

  • kgoaba welsh sebati

    I’m Interested

  • Adesokan toheeb o

    Pls i’m interested

  • Sharol van Nieuwenhuizen

    I am very interested!!! Sounds like a great course.

  • ugwu

    i am intrested.

  • adolf khoza

    I have a ambulance attendant certificate and I will be happy to be part of this course

  • Kevin

    I work as a healthcare support worker and as a researcher for a UK charity that promotes dance for the physically disabled. Really looking forward to this course and hoping it informs my work and inspires me to further study this area.

    • Mary-Ann Fife (Host)

      Sounds like you’re doing great work. Please keep us posted throughout the course about how you plan to incorporate what you learn on the course into your day-today-work. We look forward to hearing from you.

  • Mariangela Fumagalli

    I am a italian nurse. I 46 years old and I very interesting in this themes.

  • Zela Charlton

    As an artist who has , sadly, had a lot of experience ( as a consumer ) of the medical aspects of life I am thrilled at the prospect of being able to explore this subject in depth.

    • Mary-Ann Fife (Host)

      Welcome Zela! An advantage of having experienced the healthcare system as a consumer (although not pleasant in the moment) is that you are already able to bring multiple perspectives – so we look forward to hearing from you.

  • Suzie

    I am a painter and I have always taken an interest in alternative medicine because of the wholistic approach. I have also strong beliefs that creativity of any kind is beneficial for healing. I hope therefor to be able to join this course as I belive it will be very interesting.

  • Nerisha Govender

    I am a doctor who had set out a professional path dedicated to academic state health as a vehicle for the attainment of larger goals of social justice.
    I am more often of late, lamenting the steady loss of the humanity in our field: the art of medicine is in the human connection; the patient-doctor interaction is being subserved by defensive medical practice, pharmaceutical and medical insurance constraints, overworked healthcare workers etc etc.
    I am excited to be joining this conversation!

    • Mary-Ann Fife (Host)

      And we look forward to engaging with you in just a few ays time – welcome, Nerisha.

  • Lynda Bristow

    I’m wondering if I could relate any of the course content to the area of addiction.

    • Steve Reid

      I hope so Lynda. Although we won’t address the issue of addiction directly in the course, often in discussing other issues in an interdisciplinary way, we are able to see our own fields of practice or interest differently.
      Welcome to the course!

  • John Nathan

    I love the title of Humanising Healthcare. Its exactly what has been missing for the last 3 decades of scientific and technological advancement in medicine. The human being at the centre of it all has been bypassed. I hope the course addresses this fundamental aspect of caring for our fellow man by looking at how we see, understand and appreciate “the arts”.

  • Barry Noble

    I am excited for the course to start.

    • Mary-Ann Fife (Host)

      We are excited too, and look forward to engaging with you, Barry.

  • Jairo Sánchez

    I am very curious about the possibility for us to know really what scientists have discoverd about mind body and emotions connection. Because having into account that the medical and farmaceutical multinational companies make a tremendous pressure to not people access to this information. It is against their economic interest.