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What Is Medical Humanities?

Written by: Wilson College   •  Feb 28, 2023

A hospital administrator and a care provider meet in a hospital hallway.

What Is Medical Humanities?

Medicine and culture have always been inextricably linked. It is truly not possible to treat patients without coming into contact with their cultures, beliefs, and unique needs as humans.

The interdisciplinary study of the arts, literature, psychology, and culture, as they relate to healthcare, is known as medical humanities. This field of study is receiving renewed interest in programs across the country.

Many aspiring healthcare professionals are not sure what part the humanities can play in medicine. Because medicine is a science-based discipline, people question the role of arts, literature, and philosophy at the patient’s bedside. As such, it is important to understand the purpose of medical humanities degree programs as well as the broader discipline. To comprehend it as a whole, prospective students should first explore questions such as:

  • What’s the definition of medical humanities?
  • What are the key goals of medical humanities degree programs?
  • Which subject areas are typically covered in their curricula?
  • What valuable skills do students in these programs develop?
  • What are the benefits of earning a degree in medical humanities?

Medical Humanities Definition

Medical humanities is a field that combines multiple disciplines:

  • Social sciences: psychology, sociology, and anthropology
  • Arts: literature, film, music, visual expression, and theater
  • Humanities: philosophy, history, ethics, and theology
  • Medicine: the standard curricula of pre-med undergraduate programs in the physical sciences

Together, these form the medical humanities, an umbrella discipline that embraces the humanistic study of the ethical, social, and spiritual questions of health and caregiving. Most medical humanities programs are geared toward undergraduates, although the humanities can play a role at the master’s or doctorate level as well.

For instance, Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron did much to clarify the 14th-century experience of the Black Death and put it into perspective for the stunned humans left alive in a decimated world. Written directly following the terrible plague outbreaks in Italy, it explores how people can overcome and learn from the evolution of human existence.

Moreover, an article in the journal BMC Medical Education reports that art history courses can improve how medical students observe and evaluate patients.

Medical Humanities Degree Program Curriculum and Goals

In addition to understanding what medical humanities is, students who are interested in pursuing a degree in the field should become acquainted with the goal of a medical humanities degree as well as the concepts and skills they will learn in the program.

The goal of a medical humanities program is to give students of medicine, public health, health education, health administration, and related fields a wide frame of reference when treating patients or making healthcare policy decisions. This can apply to assessment, diagnosis, treatment, communication, and reporting.

A medical humanities curriculum includes coursework in statistics, public welfare, and epidemiology, among other subjects. It is designed to help students understand how to treat the patient as well as the disease. As such, it is a viable major on its own, or as a potential double major for nursing and pre-med students.

Key objectives of a medical humanities program include teaching:

  • Empathy, ethics, and critical thinking skills
  • How to improve communication and bedside manner
  • How to view patients through their cultural lens, not the healthcare worker’s
  • How to craft narratives that reach patients and help them heal

While courses vary widely by program, some of the most common subjects taught in a medical humanities major or minor are:

  • Liberal arts, such as literature, performance art, or visual arts
  • Communication, focusing on reading, writing, and speaking
  • Global health and healthcare ethics, sometimes referred to as bioethics
  • Narrative medicine, using literary criticism techniques to assess patients and provide care
  • Death and dying

Overall, studying medical humanities helps healthcare personnel connect with people, craft the right policies, and succeed in their careers.

Benefits of Earning a Medical Humanities Degree

The benefits of earning a medical humanities degree are wide-ranging and significant. Here are some of the most important.

1. History and the Arts Teach Inclusion

When students learn about past medical successes and failures, they gain an understanding of the huge breadth of the human experience. This includes its communities, cultures, beliefs, stories, and art. Engaging with these facets of humanity helps students understand all people are human, and should be included in professionals’ thinking and decision-making.

2. The Humanities Teach Empathy and Communication

Immersion in the arts and culture grows a person’s ability to sympathize and respond to other’s emotions. Medical humanities students also gain a sense of perspective, understanding that the history of medicine is one long narrative of doing one’s best.

3. Philosophy and Sociology Inform Ethics

The Hippocratic oath—an oath regarding ethical standards historically taken by physicians—was written in the fourth century B.C. and proves just how long doctors have felt the need to express their devotion to their patients’ health. Exploring the history and art of medicine comes with a hefty dose of ethics and philosophy.

4. The Humanities Widen Job Prospects

Careers in healthcare go far beyond operating rooms and intensive care units. Studying medical humanities helps students widen their prospects, setting them up to succeed at jobs that require considerable community engagement. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that healthcare occupations will grow 13% between 2021 and 2031—twice as fast as the labor market as a whole—making for a wide array of career opportunities.

These roles vary. For instance, some healthcare professionals may choose to become patient advocates or community health workers. Others may choose to coordinate care, work in billing, help write policy, or craft wellness plans for companies. Anyone interested in pursuing a career that requires excellent communication skills or an understanding of unique population needs will benefit from having a medical humanities background.

Discover How a Medical Humanities Degree Can Help Your Career

A degree in medical humanities can lead to a career in clinical healthcare, public health administration, healthcare education, or policy development, among many others. The first step is finding the right educational institution to help you meet your goals.

The Bachelor of Arts in Healthcare and Medical Humanities program at Wilson College Online provides students with an interdisciplinary foundation that combines courses such as Global Health and Healthcare Ethics with studies in science, literature, and philosophy. Find out how Wilson College’s program, with its unique combination of practical knowledge and ethical values, can lead you to a rewarding career in healthcare.


BMC Medical Education, “The Art of Observation: A Qualitative Analysis of Medical Students’ Experiences”

BMC Medical Education, “The Role of Humanities in the Medical Curriculum: Medical Students’ Perspectives”

Decameron | work by Boccaccio | Britannica

Health Humanities Consortium, Defining Health Humanities

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Healthcare Occupations

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