Rationale-Why have a health/medical humanities program?

This proposal outlines a new academic program that highlights humanities, arts and related social science approaches to medicine and health. 

[For undergraduate programs: This [major/minor/certificate] will benefit clinically-focused students who plan to pursue health careers. It will benefit those interested in policy and the healthcare industries (including management, finance/insurance, marketing, research, health informatics, and sales). It will also appeal to non-health career students who may still be interested in medicine and science from a humanistic perspective, knowing that someday they will be patients themselves and/or lay caregivers for family. Still others may find that critical inquiry into illness, health, and healing illuminate the humanities’ core purpose: understanding selfhood and the nature of being in the world.]

[For graduate programs: This [masters/certificate] program will appeal to students who chose to pursue a health-related career late in their undergraduate studies and can provide a meaningful experience during a gap year before entering a professional degree program. This graduate program will also appeal to mid-career health care workers who seek additional training to reconnect with the meaning of their work (why they chose to pursue a healing profession in the first place) and to help them expand their career horizons.]  

Health Humanities studies the intersection of health and humanistic disciplines (such as philosophy, religion, literature) fine arts, as well as particular social science research that gives insight into the human condition (such as history, anthropology, sociology, and cultural studies, including critical race theory.) In recent years, the health professions have directed attention to humanistic knowledge and methodologies. By examining health, medicine, illness, and wellness through a health/medical humanities lens, students, clinicians, educators, policymakers and administrators delve into the complexities and intersectionality of the human experience.  Part of this interest comes from our shared experiences of the pandemic, climate change, and growing acknowledgement of the challenges of the social dimensions of health in regard to class, race, sex, and socioeconomic status. 

Evidence of this turn can be seen in the dramatic growth of health and medical humanities curriculum and programs in higher education. The American Association of Medical Colleges released its strategy in “The Fundamental Role of the Arts and Humanities in Medical Education” (FRAHME) report. This approach is not surprising since the 2015 MCAT revisions required test-takers not only to have a strong background in science, but also in humanities and social sciences. Since 1968, humanities education has been an increasing part of the medical school curriculum and subsequently has been added to osteopathic, nursing, and public health programs. Over the last three decades, health professions education has evolved to balance science education with the skills of communication, interpretation, narrative storytelling, comfort with ambiguity, and social observation more commonly found in humanities disciplines. From 2001 to 2021 over 100 undergraduate (and 10 graduate) programs in health humanities have been established throughout the United States and Canada (Lamb, Berry, Jones 2021; UT Austin Humanities Institute, 2021). 

Recent scholarship suggests four trends are driving the academic interests in health humanities: (1) Acknowledging the value of humanistic ways of knowing to connect clinicians and patients as well as to situate clinicians toward dealing with stressful jobs. The humanities help one to establish meaning in their work and to identify with the human condition. (2) With decreasing enrollment in the humanities in traditional universities, there has been an increasing student interest in applied humanities. (3) The need to recontextualize scientific knowledge to the general populace to create meaning and understanding in a rapidly changing world. The health humanities have developed and been influenced by such pedagogical projects as postmodernism, feminism, disability studies, multiculturalism, cultural studies and narrative inquiry. And (4) The recognition that inter- and transdisciplinary approaches to scholarship are necessary to capture more fully the effects of science and health in the world as well as to generate entrepreneurial avenues for future careers (Klugman, et al., 2021). 

Health Humanities offer insight into the human condition as it pertains to the arts and sciences of healing and deepen understanding of disease and wellness, pain and suffering, personhood, the nature of death and dying, embodied experience, and the limits of technological knowledge. Drawing from established research methods such as textual analysis, metaphor analysis, film criticism, archive work, ethnography, focus groups, interviewing, and surveys, and new methods such as health and social justice studies, aging and disability studies, digital humanities, and evidence synthesis, health humanities offer a rich and in-depth examination of the human dimensions of health and medicine. Health Humanities focuses on lived experience in interacting with the medical and lay world to reveal the ethical, cultural and social contexts of health. 

A [major/minor/certificate/masters] in Health Humanities would draw on the strengths of existing programs at this university. Given its inter- and transdisciplinary nature, this program would also draw connections between the humanities, fine arts, and social sciences to bolster student interest in these areas and to better prepare them to meet the needs of future employers.


  • Klugman, Craig M., Rachel C. Bracken, Rosemary I. Weatherston, Catherine Burns Konefal, and Sarah L. Berry. 2021. “Developing New Academic Programs in the Medical/Health Humanities: A Toolkit to Support Continued Growth.” Journal of Medical Humanities 42 (4). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10912-021-09710-5.
  • NLM. 2019. “Medical Humanities.” National Library of Medicine. Accessed August 30, 2021. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK518708/.

How to Cite This Document

Health Humanities Consortium. “Rationale – Why have a medical / health humanities program?” HHC Curricular Toolkit. https://healthhumanitiesconsortium.com/publications/hhc-toolkit/. August 2021.

© 2021 Health Humanities Consortium. The HHC gives permission for this text to be used in part or in whole for the writing of any health humanities related proposal without attribution to this source.

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