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Fundamental questions posed for Medical Humanities

Post by Andrew Fletcher

‘Form’ – in its broadest sense – was addressed at Newcastle University’s recent Medical Humanities Network workshop. A range of speakers shared their perspectives on core ideas around: what of methodology? How should we treat – and what constitutes – evidence? And whose voices should be prioritised?

Artist/academics described their work, including: on ‘chapbooks’ and individualised book-objects relating to the Faithful Judgements project; historical and contemporary sculptures that blur the territories between real and ‘imagined’ bodily insides; an overview of the ‘Altered Eating’ project, which explores alternative ways to perceive food; and a comic book-based initiative to alleviate young people’s fear around MRI machines. We heard from the former poetry editor of the BMJ’s Medical Humanities journal who asked, among other things, about new ways of generating knowledge from practice experience; and from a practitioner/researcher on ‘building bridges’ between medical and arts environments.

Credit: Olivia Turner and Dr Sally Waite, 'The Way My Body Feels,' 2019. Photography by Janina Sabaliauskaite.

My notes from these fascinating brief talks and the discussion that followed form the basis for this reflective, slightly rambly, blog post. So what stood out? There was a sense that some clinicians’ resistance to the humanities is in some ways understandable; medicine has a clear teleology, being driven by the concrete aim of improving health, compared with art, which can have less clear outcomes but offers new languages to explore more complex issues and experiences. Sometimes, especially in mental health, process is more important (although as a free-improvising musician, I find the popular idea of ranking process above product somewhat over-emphasised).

An interesting discussion was held around spaces. While medical treatment and creative practice can share environments – children’s wards for example – there are also definitively clinical or artistic spaces, often inscribed by the practitioners and practices within them. An arts studio for people with mental health issues is still primarily understood as a studio, not a treatment space; an MRI suite still remains alienating for many. Perhaps these are necessary barriers – but where medical humanities takes place is key; aspects from the altered eating project were far more successful when conducted in a social, non-clinical, environment. How we, as medical humanities people, negotiate institutional contexts is likely to have a strong bearing on our practice, its framing and form.

Diverse voices are prioritised differently in different spaces. The sheer weight of the contexts in which medical humanities operates, in spite of all the positive examples mentioned today, shapes the debate around methodologies and about which types of evidence have value, and where. It was asked: are we establishing an artificial binary between medicine and humanities? This is likely an old question but it was also pointed out that, although we can see the benefits of humanities to medical science, in many cases – particularly with creative practice – why should health professionals care? In making the case for medical practices to acknowledge more the value of humanities, is there a risk of adopting scientistic language and rhetoric just to get a seat at the table? Perhaps that’s a question for the next meeting.

That said, the projects described were interesting in their own right and all had real impact on patients’ lives. As an artist/researcher, the discussion rekindled my own thoughts on the nuances of our (artists, historians, educators, philosophers, etc.) relationship with the medical world.

#medicalhumanities #artsmedicine #creativepractice

Andrew Fletcher is a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Philosophy at Durham University, working on the ERC-funded Knowledge for Use (K4U) programme.

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