Brian Abrams

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This monograph is an important contribution—along with the Health Humanities Reader (2014)—to the burgeoning field of health humanities, a new academic field and the presumed replacement for (and expansion of) medical humanities. While the medical humanities included philosophy, literature, religion, and history, health humanities includes many more disciplines, and the creative arts.
This book is dense with theory and abstraction, but it imaginatively and intelligently promotes the notion that health is a larger and more useful concept than disease, which dominates and limits standard medicine. 

Five authors are listed for the book as a whole; none are attributed specifically to any of the eight chapters.
The first chapter “Health Humanities” promotes health humanities as an expansion of medical humanities to include more people (including unpaid caregivers and patients), social and national well-being, and the arts, such as dance, music, and visual art. We need to consider wider ranges of meaning, agency, and patients’ varying life stories. Unpaid caregivers have been neglected, even though “the majority of healthcare as it is practiced, is nonmedical” (p. 13). Medicine per se has been too science-based and too disease oriented, but critical theory and the arts can be “enabler[s] of health and well-being” (p. 19) with many applications to hospitals, clinics, homes, and neighborhoods.

“Anthropology and the Study of Culture” describes a wide range of inquiry, both worldwide and throughout human time, including rituals, conceptions of disease, health, death, and impacts for patients. Some cultures believe in spirit possession. The Chinese have worked with qi (life energy) for millennia. Cultural studies look at popular media, spiritual perspectives, also local and subcultural values.
“Applied Literature” discusses pathographies, including mental illness (for example, self-harm); it reviews concepts from Rita Charon and describes how reading groups can promote well-being. Literature expands our understanding of humans well beyond the biomedical gaze. Closely related, “Narrative and Applied Linguistics” reviews notions from Osler, Barthes, Bruner, Propp, Frank, and others. Patients want, beyond technical expertise, healthcare personnel who will help them co-create an enabling narrative. New techniques in linguistics include analysis of a corpus of usage, for example, teen language, thereby gaining approaches to young patients who cut themselves.

At 23 pages, the longest chapter is “Performing Arts and the Aesthetics of Health.” It posits that all arts are uniquely human because they are relational, aesthetic, and temporal (with time in a kairos sense, not just chronos). The arts fit into health practices, which also share the same three qualities. The arts promote coherence, agency, communication, expression, and social wellbeing, traits that are described specifically in music, dance, and drama. Similarly, the next chapter “Visual Art and Transformation,” promotes this particular art, whether elitist or popular, as communicative and transformative. The making of art can be healing. 

“Practice Based Evidence: Delivering Humanities into Healthcare” argues against Evidence Based Practice and its limitations. Instead of Randomized Controlled Trials, smaller, more qualitative studies may be more accurate and useful. Practice Based Evidence (and feminist and postmodern approaches) all create wider and deeper notions of validity.

“Creative Practice as Mutual Recovery” suggests that caregivers, whether professional or lay, also find healing as they deliver care.

In “Concluding Remarks” we read, again, that  “the majority of health care and the generation of health and well-being is non-medical” (p. 153). Medicine and medical humanities are “too narrow a bandwidth,” but health humanities can support all caregivers, various institutions (including schools), self-care, and complementary medicine.   

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