Medical humanities and COVID-19: what are the links?


Ourania Varsou

Lecturer in Anatomy, University of Glasgow

TL;DR: Medical or health-related humanities can lead to contextually rich and thought-provoking discussions. They can provide learners and the wider audience with a fresh perspective into human suffering and crises like the current pandemic. Medical humanities outputs from COVID-19 will form powerful testimonies for future generations. Actively seeking to contribute to relevant initiatives is of paramount importance in terms of creating a truly reflective archive of COVID-19.

“Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour” William Blake’s verse reaches out to me across time. This opening couplet from Auguries of Innocence summarises how it feels for me sometimes, as an academic in Higher Education during this pandemic, trying to meet important deadlines and targets (i.e. paper/chapter submissions, peer reviews) whilst keeping on top of my teaching and doing the best I can for my students, maintaining my research, and continuing with my part-time master’s degree in education. These are not new responsibilities, but ‘working from home’ on virtual settings has reduced opportunities for informal ‘corridor’ catchups with colleagues that allowed for discussion of important matters. Knowing whether I am doing the ‘right thing’ in terms of my job has also been difficult to decipher, considering that as an academic I have not been exposed to these challenges before, and it took time to build my confidence. Adjusting to new working patterns and developing some sort of a sustainable productive routine has not been easy. My solace, after relentless working days has been poetry and anatomical art. Both have empowered me to cope with what is happening, come to terms in a way with the pandemic, including its immensity and impact, express my own emotions, and openly discuss with other people sensitive subjects including loss and bereavement.


Medical or health-related humanities embed arts, humanities, and social sciences in heath professions’ curricula. The interdisciplinary nature of medical humanities can lead to contextually rich and thought-provoking discussions on challenging subjects such as bioethics, but also sensitive topics including human loss. Its blend of specialisms can also be a powerful approach to questioning the status quo and generating mutually beneficial outputs with the greater good of humanity in mind. Most importantly, medical humanities can provide learners and the wider audience with a fresh lens into human suffering whilst grounding us in humanistic values such as empathy, compassion, and respect.

This year the COVID-19 pandemic, and its associated challenges, have brought major changes to our lives some of which are difficult. Our way of life has been restricted with lockdowns, there has been a major shift in workplace practices and an exponential increase in using technology for daily interactions reducing human contact. Using medical humanities can provide the wider audience and healthcare students and professionals a way to cope with such changes.  Art, humanities, and social sciences, health-related or beyond, can also offer relatable snapshots to similar past crises/human suffering/illnesses, reassure us, even motivate us for the future, and perhaps empower us to speak with others about our own experiences, fears, and emotions. Some well-known, health-related examples providing an insight into human illness and suffering include:

  • Lorenzo’s Oil (movie) exploring terminal illness through the parent’s perspective;
  • Awakenings (book and movie) exploring both the doctor but also patient perspective into neurological conditions and the effect of new therapies beyond the mere physiology;
  • The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (book and movie) exploring a specific neurological condition, in which patients cannot move but are aware of their surroundings, from the patient’s perspective;
  • The Scream by Edvard Munch (painting) exploring mental illness and how that may feel for patients;
  • Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear by Vincent van Gogh (painting) exploring the aftermath of chronic mental health illness.

Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting The Scream, which explores mental illness and how that may feel for patients. 

This pandemic is showing us every day the importance of having a humanistic perspective in healthcare. Humanistic is referring here to the use of medical humanities to encourage and embrace a deeper, reflective, and relatable insight into human illness and suffering as part of the biopsychosocial model in medicine. There are national and international groups that foster such aims. For example, locally, the Glasgow Medical Humanities Network promotes research in the field of medical humanities and provides support for early career researchers. Internationally, the Doctor as a Humanist (DASH), which is an academic project, promotes through international cooperation and partnerships. The DASH project offers online courses, annual conferences, and more recently the free virtual symposium, “New realities in times of COVID-19: a humanistic response”, provided in partnership with McGraw Hill. I felt that one of the most vital take-home messages from this virtual symposium was the positive impact of collaborative and interdisciplinary discussions when it comes to gathering collective thoughts, especially at a time of crisis, and attempting to make changes in existing practices.

Outputs in the form of visual and digital art, photography, literature including poetry and drama, music, interpretive dance, and many more will form powerful narratives documenting the current pandemic. These will be invaluable resources, for future generations, in terms of understanding and relating to the crisis we have all been experiencing with COVID-19. As Jo Buckley discussed on last week’s blog, distance is not a barrier when it comes to developing creative outputs. Such initiatives have already started including:

  • The RSE Young Academy of Scotland COVID-19 Archives publishing blogs into the current pandemic providing a snapshot of its impacts from the academic and professional perspective;
  • In The Beginning Of Covid-19, a poetry collection written in response to COVID-19;
  • Frontline digital archive, from the Anglia Ruskin University StoryLab research institute, collecting outputs (i.e. art, videos, images) from social and health care professionals;
  • The Covid-19 Collection, in the Tullie House Museum, collecting photos of the local community’s experience of the pandemic.

We can harvest the links between medical humanities and COVID-19 at an individual, but also societal level. For anyone who is interested (i.e. patients, general public, practitioners), identifying and participating in initiatives such as the ones discussed above is a great way to get involved irrespective of field of work. Even simple things like keeping personal diaries can form powerful testimonies of COVID-19. For academic practitioners, I feel the following list is a useful starting point:

  • Identify local, national, or international medical humanities groups that can you join.
  • Keep up with the relevant literature, especially what is coming out from COVID-19, from medical humanities journals.
  • Attend relevant medical humanities symposia/conferences/meetings.
  • Don’t be afraid to reach out and discuss your ideas with like-minded colleagues, even from other disciplines, for collaborative projects.
  • Seek out funding to start relevant projects.

Blake continues, “Under every grief & pine Runs a joy with silken twine”; reassuring me that better days will come.