Thursday Review: “The Almost Right Word: The Move From Medical to Health Humanities”

Jones et al. start their article with not-so-subtle nod to academic manifestos trying to rename entire disciplines. A clinician friend of one of the authors listened intently to the reasons behind shifting “medical humanities” to “health humanities”. He then replied, Oh, the things you academics worry about…

The authors list the good reasons for shifting the name to the more general “health humanities”. They also remind us that the point of medicine is not medical intervention. The entire reason medicine exists is health and well-being. Along with simply changing a name, emphasizing the humanities in health also reemphasizes the human core of healthcare. Incorporating the humanities reminds us that care happens between two people, and that the exchange between two people — patient and provider — is where healthcare and medicine happens.

It’s not surprising that among healthcare disciplines, the humanities first cross-pollinated with medicine. Jones et al. point to the rapid increases in medical technology and the increasing power of Western biomedicine over the patient in the late 20th century. As a counter to this increasingly impersonal authority, medical professionals sought to give a voice to the human problems that arise in medicine.1 There’s a large list of classics of medical humanities written in the late 1970s. These include Sontag’s 1978 Illness as Metaphor and Beauchamp and Childress’s 1979 Principles of Biomedical Ethics.

On the one hand, calling the broad body of teaching and research “health humanities” acknowledges that there’s much more to health than medical intervention. Even more broadly, it’s an attempt to shift practice and teaching away from a standard cannon of thought:

Moreover, when the humanities began to appear in medical education, the disciplinary boundaries were still relatively intact, so that classes titled “Literature and Medicine,” “History of Medicine,” and “Philosophy and Medicine” were fairly routine and increasingly familiar offerings in the curriculum.

The original impulse that created medical humanities was to let physicians and humanities disciplines interact. Allowing two siloed bodies of knowledge to study one another, though, still keeps the silos intact. Since the 1970s, there is an increasing awareness that canonical categories aren’t able to deal with the full range of human activities that contribute to health:

Similar to how the shift from medical humanities to health humanities marked a movement away from rigid disciplinary boundaries to multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary inquiry, intersectionality is a way of thinking … the term is a reminder that there are no homogenous categories of humans.2

Jones et al. use the perspective of disabilities studies to discuss how the humanities can illuminate not just one discipline in healthcare, but health as a whole. As essential as medicine is, medicine’s purpose is to examine bodies perceived as broken without examining how the individuals in those bodies operate among others. A disability, however, is not a problem with the body. In the example of a wheelchair user, someone might have impairments that limit mobility, but are not disabled unless they are in environments without ramps, lifts, and automatic doors.3

This shift in perspective takes the humanities out of a professional and personal silo, and reminds us that what is important is the interaction between people.


The article reviewed: Jones, Therese, Michael Blackie, Rebecca Garden, and Delese Wear. 2017. “The Almost Right Word: The Move From Medical To Health Humanities”. Academic Medicine 92 (7): 932–935.

1 Pellegrino, Edmund. 1972. “Welcoming Remarks”. In Proceedings Of The First Session: Institute On Human Values In Medicine, 4. Philadelphia, PA: Society for Health and Human Values.

2 Crenshaw, Kimberle. 1991. “Mapping The Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, And Violence Against Women Of Color”. Stanford Law Review 43 (6): 1241–1299.

3 Davis, Lennard. 2013. “The End Of Identity Politics”. In The Disability Studies Reader, 265. New York, NY: Routledge.

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