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.

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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.