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Health humanities: feared by the bad, loved by the good


I have spent the last two weeks travelling around the Midlands and the north of England getting lost a lot. Who designed Nottingham for example? Three hours on the ring road looking for a postcode that my sat nav didn’t believe in.

Past the Robin Hood pub, the Robin Hood dry cleaners, the Robin Hood kebab shop. Past Will Scarlet’s curtain emporium, Robin Hood’s tanning booth and back again to Robin Hood’s pub. I knew I was in Nottingham but frankly it looked pretty much like Southampton, only with more of a Robin Hood theme.

Earlier in the week I got lost in Bradford, confused in Leeds and wet in Bury where, despite the newspapers claiming it was August, it was quite clearly November. Apart from getting lost I had a great time and met some lovely people. I drove across the moors, I read a book in various places and I listened to stories just about everywhere. I still hate the M6 obviously, but I do like England. Don’t get me wrong,

‘The Robin Hood pub, the Robin Hood dry cleaners, the Robin Hood kebab shop, - Nottingham looked like Southampton only with more of a Robin Hood theme’

I like other countries too (they’re very nice), but from the Sussex Downs to the Yorkshire Moors we have some real beauty here, and mostly the people are pretty good too. Well, I did come across some shouting loutish people outside Bradford courts but I think they were lawyers so I wasn’t surprised. In the abstract people can be a bit annoying but face to face they tend toward the good.

When in Nottingham I attended the first International Health Humanities Conference. It had a theme of madness and literature, and people from all over the world talked on such diverse things as the use of poetry in establishing and managing a therapeutic relationship to the nature and presentation of madness in Shakespeare. Kay Redfield Jamison, author of An Unquiet Mind, spoke compellingly about the impact of writing a memoir of mental illness and chillingly of the fundamental Christians who lambasted her for doing so. In essence it was an opportunity to borrow perspective and expertise from a broad range of thinkers and doers. At its heart was a rare warmth, openheartedness and intelligence.

I have wondered why this is and think it’s because everyone - a mix of clinicians, writers, philosophers, service users - was forced out of their comfort zone and found themselves explaining their worlds in a different way. And answering questions that perhaps they are not used to. However, I suspect it is also, in part, because humanities tend toward the excavation of human quality or at least a curiosity about the essence of being human rather then a list of what humanness may entail.

I have long believed that for nurse education to flourish it needs to exist in a humanities context. I certainly believe that is the case for mental health nursing but, in truth, I have always thought the idea that nursing is a science was a little crass.

Nursing has a heart and immeasurable complexity. And nurses need more than science to survive and flourish, they need nourishment and nuance. Medical humanities is already reasonably well established, surely health humanities should be too?


Readers' comments (8)

  • I have to disagree with you on the whole here Mark.

    Nurse education at the moment (taking into account it is wildly different depending what University you attend) is PRIMARILY humanities, not science based; and that is why Nurse education is so poor at the moment.

    Yes the broad range of subjects that humanities covers, communication, politics, sociology, psychology, etc etc etc, no doubt has a place in Nursing, but NOT at the expense of science, namely A&P, pathophysiology, pharmacology, etc.

    The balance SHOULD be on the science side, with humanities included, not the other way around.

    All the understanding of socioeconomic processes of human behaviour will not mean a damn thing if we do not know how to cure an illness or treat an injury, it is as simple as that.

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  • I tend to agree with Mike.
    Most of the student nurses I have encountered recently have been far more interested in the humanities than with the science of their intended profession.
    I despair of student nurses whose grasp of A & P, for instance, is smaller than that of many first aiders. They are able to comment on the psychological state of the client, but not to offer any observations on possible treatments.

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  • I have to agree. When I studied at Worcester Uni I was very lucky, as the nurse training there had a good balance between science and humanities, with A&P covering a large chunk of the first year and then appearing in the second and third year being linked to illness and disease processess. Nurses need a good science based education in order to be able to fully manage patient care.

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  • I'm afraid that I also think that nursing needs to include more science and less psychobabble. I have come across students who are very up-to-date on the latest nursing models but ask them to draw a diagram of the heart or expalin to a patient why they need to get their diabetes under better control and the knowledge gap is obvious. We need to be looking across the pond and take note of how our US cousins run their nursing degrees if we want our graduates to be top notch nurses and world beaters.

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  • Can't see whay you need a sat nav. I've had to navigate round many UK cities, including finding 2 blood donation sessions Nottingham for a research project. I just printed out maps from websites before leaving office / home or just stopped at the first newsagents I found & bought an A to Z. Perhaps I'm oddly good at navigation (I orienteer and have surveyed orienteering and geomorphology maps), so I was given responsibility for visiting out of area families in an other study. However, perhaps this shows that teaching navigation / map reading would be more use than teahcing humanities?!? I agree with others who ahve said more science, less humanities, less psychobabble.

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  • Anonymous | 16-Aug-2010 4:50 pm I love how the actual point of the article came as an afterthought there!

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  • I like after thoughts too, I think we have to blame the Normans for the design of Nottingham, tho' as an Anglo-Saxon living north of the city and not far from Sherwood Forest perhaps I am biased. I trained in the 70's when A & P was the initial part of studying every system breakdown and how to fix it. We still encompassed compassion and humanitarianism as we looked at how to nurse the patient but that fundamental understanding of what was normal and what had gone wrong was a logical starting point.

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  • susan | 7-Oct-2010 10:32 am

    I actual think there is an important place for health humanities in nursing . I think we disreguard it at our peril as it promotes a bit of soul in nursing and keeps us in touch with the diversity of the human condition and issues both social and political.(poetry and literature in history often reflected the problems of the day.)
    Science is crucial but on it's own and isolated from human relationships makes for automaton like behaviour , ie prescribing ,treating, carrying out orders unthinkingly, all powerful, anbitious but at serious risk of losing touch the with the human component and hub dub of life in general.
    Of such overly science based societies are dictatorships created. Think of the screwy ideas of pseudo science , fascism and censorship and all the rest of that.
    Dear me I've gone on a bit . I do think Mark makes a pretty good argument on the whole!

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