by Aimee Dyamond

I’ve always loved stories. I love reading and hearing them, mostly.

In the flightiness of my post-Matric prime, roused by the arrogance of late adolescence and brochure analogies of worlds and oysters resting in the palm of my hand, I looked no further than a Bachelor of Arts degree, with majors in English Literature and media and communications. Anything else would’ve been ludicrous.  With stories at the helm of my fragile selfhood, the next logical step was to analyse those told by others until I was ready to try my hand at telling my own.

Then, I graduated.

Suddenly, my love for human narratives, cultural discourses and the potency of language in its ability to express the lexicons of our experiences, ideologies and cultures, deflated. Suddenly, the value of all I had learned and challenged was left behind in the lecture halls and classrooms of the university. I had no opportunity to continue to deconstruct these narratives, no further impetus to question things, and no sources from which I could find the stories I craved.

Because of this, I made my transition from the liberal arts to the healing arts. In my short time in this new, foreign field, I have begun to see how my previous studies in the humanities have helped to enlighten and prepare me for a career in a healthcare profession. Things are illuminated every day in ways that I had never imagined. It is as if I have painted over a vivid picture with black ink, and each day, I am scratching through the surface with the tip of a pin, revealing more and more of what lies beneath. Against the blackness, what is revealed shines brighter and more vibrantly than it ever did before. I feel like things are making more sense. Studying the humanities was not a waste of time; in fact, it was the best use of time I’ve ever made.

As future health professionals, it is our life’s work to understand human narratives, to read between the lines, and to interpret nuanced accounts that are often obscured by high-pitched emotion, or a lack of it entirely. Narratives of pain, illness, disability, lived experience and, inevitably, death, pervade every encounter and interaction in our profession. It is because of these that we need to understand the whole patient – not simply as the sum of his or her individual parts, or the product of his or her condition, but rather, with a holistic approach in mind. This means listening and understanding in context. And that is precisely what the humanities taught me.

  1. The ability to see things from new and different perspectives

When faced with a complex diagnosis or condition, the right intervention is not always immediately clear. By approaching problems with a world-view that has been nurtured by the humanities, we are able to gain unique insight into human behaviour and the intrinsic quality of human nature itself. We can interpret scenarios and mine hidden meaning from the deepest pathological and psychological crevices of being.

  1. Listening and translating

Most students with a solid foundation in the humanities are not only able to listen well, but also possess the ability to interpret things and translate these between various contexts and audiences.  Listening is one of the most important skills in the health professional’s repertoire. In treating patients, her first point-of-call is to listen to patients’ stories and interpret grains of truth that will serve to inform and illuminate the ultimate solution she will offer.

  1. Persuasion 

Well-versed in intellectual debates and clashes of ideology, the humanities student is both charismatic and persuasive. She can defend her ideas to the very last stand, and has a knack for persuading others why her views should be considered. Her diplomacy is a useful skill when inevitable disagreements over treatment plans occur.

  1. Critical thought 

Nuanced, higher order thinking is the domain of the humanities and the buttress of the health profession. Detecting subtleties and recognising patterns are skills that thrive in a medical environment, but are not prioritised in many curricula. The humanities-trained hemispheres of the health professional’s brain light up when complex contextual problems arise: she listens, interprets and thinks ahead, able to predict how seemingly small causes have significant effects.

The humanities student is trained to challenge the status quo. She questions everything. She does not easily accept the way things are and tirelessly strives to challenge ideologies that become lazily accepted. Social and political awareness and engagement with history are other hallmarks of the humanities student which prove invaluable in coming to grips with the challenges that arise in a healthcare setting.

  1. Qualitative research

Research skills – particularly in the qualitative domain – are essential for health students and professionals, though typically mastered by humanities graduates. Identifying phenomena, hypothesising, analysing data and drawing conclusions using are skills that the budding health professional is very likely to need in her studies and future career. Essay-writing, fieldwork and compiling research reports in the humanities are excellent forms of preparation for developing these skills.

  1. Interpersonal skills

Perhaps one of the most crucial and commonly overlooked components of healthcare is the interpersonal dimension. Humanities graduates have this covered. For example, the interview skills we acquire in humanities research equip us for assessing our patients for the first time, helping them to open up and give us as much information as possible to help us treat them. Effective communication is essential when offering advice to patients, explaining conditions or illness and delivering bad news. In practice, you’ll need to reading and write often, from completing assessments to writing reports.

At first glance, the humanities appear to be the vague, equivocal cousin of the medical sciences, with a distant, but slippery relation to the realm of health care. Geographically, the two are separated between two campuses. Occasionally, some sliver of humanities wisdom enters conversation among medical students, but it is not a soundly defined relationship. The linkage between medicine and the arts is still uncharted territory, charged with potentiality. It’s there, but it’s not widely understood.

The University of Cape Town’s first MOOC (massive open online course), titled Medicine and the Arts: Humanising Healthcare, is a collaboration of thinkers and doers from all spheres of academia and practice, from cardiologists to poets. It was pretty fortunate that it was launched the year I started out in as a health sciences student, entering with a background in the humanities which, until recently, I felt was mismatched to my current pursuits. Further afield, the medical humanities are gaining traction. Yale University’s Medical Humanities and the Arts Council offers courses in the interdisciplinary field of medical humanities; seeks to establish the unique lens through which we view medical education and practice. There’s also an academic journal dedicated to the field.

The intersection of the humanities and medical sciences is an exciting space. The development of the medical humanities is on academic, professional and public radars alike, while the use of creativity as a tool in the health professions is an increasingly popular notion. There is much discussion around how creativity, among other arts-related concepts, may be used an agent for change to the bring clarity and inspiration to health care. The use of literary, musical and dramatic arts, social sciences, philosophy and cultural studies to understand and inspire healing is the product of this discussion. The medical humanities seeks to burst the ‘medical bubble’ than many budding health professionals find themselves confined to, stretching frames of reference beyond pure science and into realms of knowledge that offer alternative sources of meaning and enlightenment.

As Daniel Solove, law professor at George Washington University, wrote: “…the humanities are like water – combine them with many things, and they can grow into something amazing”.

The trick is to find the right seed with which to water your humanities knowledge. For me, it was with human stories, the immediate, unembellished, inglorious ones that were untouchable, inaudible and far from literary. Stories that I, in whatever small, limited way that my work will allow, might help pen into narratives of hope, healing and resilience.

Bio: I am a Capetonian, humanities postgraduate and health sciences convert. After a short stint working at one of South Africa’s leading digital marketing agencies, a winter internship at the national museum and a summer internship at a popular food magazine, I enrolled as an occupational therapy student at the University of Cape Town in search of a new kind of story.


Melissa Hudler · July 6, 2016 at 12:30 am

Thank you for sharing such an insightful and well-delineated perspective on the value of the humanities in healthcare. I’m new to the field and, as a lit. and writing professor, I’m working on bringing literature and writing programs to local healthcare professionals. Your well-organized and clearly articulated ideas (no doubt a result of your humanities education!) will help certainly me in my persuasive efforts. Also, I teach a course I developed called Literature of Illness and Trauma, and your article will be a perfect resource for the nursing and pre-med students who take it. Do you mind if I link to it from my course website? I hope you’ve found new stories! Best wishes, Melissa

    Aimee Dyamond · January 22, 2017 at 3:31 pm

    Hello Melissa,

    Thank you for your wonderful feedback! I apologise for my delayed response – I happened upon your comment by chance some months after you’d posted it and was delighted to hear from you.

    I’m pleased that you found the piece useful as a resource in your teaching. I’m always looking for more insights into the junction between medicine. and the arts, and presently have a few personal projects related to the medical humanities that remain in the incubation stages.

    If you’d like to chat further about the topic, you’re welcome to email me on : I’d be happy to hear from you!

    Kind regards,


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