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.
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?