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Medical Humanities

According to the legendary physician Hippocrates, medicine has three components: the disease, the patient and the physician. Their constitution and their interaction are the domain of the Medical Humanities – a richly diverse field of scholarship which draws on disciplines in the humanities, social sciences and the arts. As well as providing insights into one of the most basic and universal of human concerns, these disciplines can inform the science and practice of medicine.  Although our knowledge of disease and its treatment have advanced massively, decisions about whom or when to treat or how to prevent disease, cannot be made on the basis of science alone. They remain ethical and political judgments, reflecting economic realities, cultural norms and socially-conditioned perceptions of risk. 

The mutual shaping of medicine and society has long been a subject of study at Oxford, which has a distinguished record of teaching and research in the Medical Humanities. World-leading research centres in the ethics of medicine and neuroscience, and the history of medicine, provide a focus for the humanistic study of medicine and the social determinants of health. The University also offers popular graduate teaching programmes in the medical aspects of philosophy, anthropology and history.  Regular seminars in Literature and Medicine and Medical Humanities draw together scholars from all faculties and departments. The late Dr Ann McPherson’s ‘Patient Experiences’ website speaks to these shared interests, as does Oxford’s new Health Experiences Institute ‘dedicated to understanding the attitudes, values and experiences of people coping with illness or making decisions about their health’.

Now, in a major new initiative, these activities are to be coordinated under the broader banner of Medical Humanities.  Scholars from across three divisions of the University – Medical Sciences, Social Sciences and the Humanities – will have the opportunity to share their unique expertise and to find common platforms for research and education. This new collaboration will produce the world’s largest forum for Medical Humanities and provide an unparalleled resource for public and professional engagement.    

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Dr Jeremy Howick discusses empathy