On the day that our dean made the difficult decision to recall the students from their clinical rotations in response to the growing SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, we submitted a proposal to restructure and expand our medical school’s offerings in the medical humanities—the study of history, literature, philosophy, ethics, social psychology, and other disciplines to better understand the complex relationships between individuals, health, illness, health care, and society.
We included with our submission a note of understanding that, since our proposal had little or no bearing on clinical operations in a time of crisis, we were prepared to wait patiently for a response.
Neither of us anticipated how the demand for opportunities to read, write, and reflect would surge among healthcare professionals in the coming weeks.
In the past month, we have been asked to develop humanities offerings that address the pandemic at two separate medical schools. We have facilitated virtual writing and reflection groups for medical students, residents, and faculty. Last week, as my division chief planned for a new normal of physically distant operations, she asked me to host an online poetry reading to restore a sense of community.
Our experience is not unique. Another faculty member at our university has redesigned her Literature and Medicine seminar for undergrads to address the ethical issues raised by the pandemic. The Nocturnists podcast, Stanford’s Medicine & the Muse Program, the Twitter-based #MedHumChat, and The Human Touch Magazine have all modified and expanded their formats to accommodate the growing need among healthcare providers, students, and trainees for opportunities to connect and create.
Perhaps we should have seen this coming, but a movement to de-emphasize the humanities in favor of science, technology, engineering, and math-oriented education has tempered our expectations. While this narrow focus on disciplines linked directly to the technology economy is misguided in the most ordinary times, it is morally perilous in a crisis.
It is also ahistorical. From the renaissance to the emergence of modernism in the wake of the First World War and the last pandemic, periods of investment in the humanities enabled and enhanced advances in science and technology. The arts have been no less important on a personal level. When asked to reflect on the value of poetry, the poet Michael Longley remarked:
In the ashes outside the crematorium in Auschwitz, they discovered scraps of poems. And these are people who were going to their deaths, and they found time to write a poem. Well, I mean, that says it all, doesn’t it?1
Poems will not produce antibodies against the virus that causes COVID-19, but an embrace of the humanities will be essential for addressing the deeper questions this moment has raised: how to ensure the sensible and just allocation of healthcare resources; how to address the shocking health disparities unmasked by the virus; how to support healthcare workers, patients, and families as they confront morality, survivor’s guilt, and grief?
If doctors want to be part of the solution to these problems, we need to prepare not only to interpret the results of randomized clinical trials but also to debate the merits of social-contract versus duty-based ethical theories; to see the world through the eyes of a character in an August Wilson play; and to confront grief through Joan Didion’s writing.
It is impossible to foresee the new world that will emerge in the post-pandemic era. History tells us that it will be different in both imagined and unimaginable ways. To ensure that the future of medicine is more just, more inclusive, and more faithful to its healing mission, medical schools and teaching hospitals must invest not only in ventilators and vaccines but also in poetry.