Health Care & the Humanities During the Coronavirus Pandemic

The humanities and health care disciplines are not typically considered compliments, however, an emerging field of inquiry merges both health and humanities together to solve complex problems in health care.

On June 18, Duke in DC co-hosted a virtual congressional briefing with the Duke Franklin Humanities Institute (FHI) Health Humanities Lab about the important role the humanities are playing during COVID-19. The event’s speakers included co-directors of the FHI Health Humanities Lab, Deborah Jenson, professor of romance studies and global health at Duke University and Neil Prose, professor of dermatology, pediatrics and global health at Duke University. The panel also included Megha Gupta, a current student at Duke University Medical School, Marina Tsaplina, an interdisciplinary performing artist and Cuquis Robledo, lab manager at the FHI Health Humanities Lab.

The event’s speakers reflected on the numerous areas that health and the humanities can be linked to help reimagine the current health care system, specifically through narrative medicine. Medical student Megha Gupta explained that narrative medicine helps her “contextualize” disease by listening to a patient’s story rather than a list of symptoms in her textbooks.

As critical as the role doctors and nurses have in our nation’s COVID-19 response, the speakers also noted how vital hospital housekeepers, custodians and additional support staff, who have distanced themselves from their loved ones, are to the health care ecosystem. These housekeepers are often some of a patient’s only in-person emotional support, which is best captured in the FHI film, Keepers of the House.

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) gives federal support to universities, including Duke University, to study the humanities and supports important work at the Franklin Humanities Institute and around campus to promote, preserve and disseminate critical stories about our history and culture.

The panelists were also asked, “What can the federal government do to better encourage the use and study of the humanities in our health care system?” In response they said:

“We’ll need the public institutions to come forward and help recognize that the kind of doctor that’s going to take care of you or your mother or grandmother, is going to depend on our success in bringing humanism into medicine” – Neil Prose

“Title IV funding of foreign area studies, which is key to helping to promote language learning… all of which is crucial to working across the gaps of socioeconomic status, ethnic status, our society is really driven by structural inequalities” – Deborah Jenson

“There’s not a substantive federal funding structure for arts and public health and funding for arts and medical education” – Marina Tsaplina