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This content is taken from the University of Cape Town's online course, Medicine and the Arts: Humanising Healthcare. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 17 secondsHi. My name is Susan Levine. I'm a medical anthropologist at the University of Cape Town. I have a particular interest in the medical humanities, with its emphasis on the convergence of dialogue between artists, health practitioners, and social scientists. And I'm looking forward to engaging with you in this course, Medicine and the Arts. And I'm Steve Reid. I'm head of primary health care at UCT and a family physician, with a background in rural health. And we're here at Khayelitsha District Hospital in Cape Town to introduce this course. Steve, what is the medical humanities for you? So I think it's two things. Well, it's a broad interdisciplinary field. But for me, it's about what the humanities add to the practise of medicine.

Skip to 1 minute and 5 secondsBut at the same time, it's medicine as seen from different perspectives, literally historical, anthropological perspectives. Both of those, for me, are the components of this thing that we call the medical humanities. What about you? Well, Steve, you've summed it up so well. But I would say that in addition to those two, there may be a third, which has to do with teaching, with pedagogy, with the ways in which medical students are trained. With the ways in which medical students come to think about care, with mortality, and also the limits of medicine, with the limits of biomedical science. And maybe to engage with a range of ideas which come from the arts, which come from history.

Skip to 1 minute and 52 secondsAnd as you say, a kind of engagement. So for me, there's also a pedagogical imperative for the medical humanities to flourish. So Susan, what led you into this field of medical humanities? Steve, when I first arrived at the University of Cape Town and joined the Department of Anthropology, it was at the height of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. And at the time, antiretrovirals were not widely available in the country. We had a quite oppositional state, a president who denied the link between HIV and AIDS. And so much of the work on the ground was taken up by documentary filmmakers, by musicians, by political activists, as well as radical health care practitioners, working really on the fringes.

Skip to 2 minutes and 32 secondsAnd it seemed to me that the medical humanities offers a very powerful space for people to cross the boundaries between disciplines to solve some of the most complex health and care issues of our times. I'm a family physician, but I'm also a musician I always inhabited these two worlds as two separate entities. So I'm always looking for ways of integrating them, both from an intellectual point of view, but also how one incorporates the arts and different perspectives into this practise of medicine.

Skip to 3 minutes and 8 secondsSo we've created the space, this course, to explore important issues in life, in health, in our experience as human beings from multiple different perspectives, not just from a biomedical perspective, but also from an artistic perspective, literary perspective, a social science perspective. Because all of these ways of seeing, of being, are important. And they potentially lead us to some of the solutions to the major challenges that we face in this country and all around the world. So Susan, give us an example of what you mean by interdisciplinarity in medical humanities, a practical example. A practical example from my own work comes from research, very qualitative, longterm research, listening to people. And I've recently been working in KZN with childhood blindness.

Skip to 4 minutes and 6 secondsAnd particularly cataracts, which leads to childhood blindness. And finding out from parents that it's not the cost of transportation that limits their ability to get to the clinics. It's sometimes not even the accessibility of clinics for medical care. But it's their fear. It's their fear of their children dying under anaesthesia. It's sometimes their fear of upsetting ancestors through dealing with a condition that was inherited from one child, from their parents or grandparents. So as an anthropologist, I can elicit certain kinds of information from people that's not readily available in the health care setting by doctors. And so we've been able to make a film that focuses on one family's journey towards restoring sight in their child.

Skip to 4 minutes and 44 secondsSo filmmakers, and anthropologists, and ophthalmologists coming together to solve a real crisis around blindness in the country. Part of the journey of this particular course is to discover what the medical humanities means for Africa and in particular South Africa. So much theory making in medical sociology, medical anthropology, and the health sciences come from the North. And we now have an opportunity to introduce, to discover, the value of producing theory in the South. So we've selected six critical issues to do with life. With what it means to be human or mortal. And locating these in a South African context, but hoping that you'll translate those or interpret them into your own context.

Skip to 5 minutes and 30 secondsWe think that the interdisciplinary space is a good one to try and understand an issue in its entirety and move this field of medical humanities forward. The starting point for this course is clearly the speakers, the presenters, the work that Steve and I did to assemble this particular course for you. But ultimately, it's about you. At some point, all of us will experience health and health care crises in our lives. And so while the course begins with our structuring, it really is an engagement between you and us. We will lead you over the next six weeks through a series of seminars that are presented by some fascinating speakers.

Skip to 6 minutes and 12 secondsBut we hope that you will translate those ideas into your own particular environment and situation and make sense of that through yourselves, through the assignments, and of the discussion spaces. Enjoy the journey.

Welcome to the course

Our aim in this course is to facilitate exploration and engagement of the interdisciplinary space between health sciences, social sciences and the arts. Each week we will investigate a new aspect of human life from the perspective of the body, of social life, and of the imagination. This course is open to everyone. All that’s required is an interest in medicine, the arts or social sciences. We anticipate unexpected outcomes, and look forward to potential new research synergies, ideas and projects. We are hoping that you will join the spirit of exploration and inquiry as we dig into the interdisciplinary spaces described by the educators, and that you start to develop new ideas of your own.

The basis of this course is to question how we think, speak and act in relation to health, medicine, the body and healing. Over the next six weeks we shall be using the Medical Humanities as our theoretical framework for exploring the topics under discussion. As you take the course, we’d like you to keep in the back of your mind the kind of paradigm that this offers for knowing about and acting in the world, for navigating suffering and joy, health and debilitation, in body, mind and spirit.

The last thing to mention by way of introduction is that this course arose out of both an interest in building the Medical Humanities in Africa and as part of the bigger project of developing ‘theory from the global South.’ We were interested in thinking about how this transdisciplinary space of Medical Humanities might be understood as both a local project, with local actors, agendas and perspectives, and as part of a broader global effort to bring together fields of experience and knowledge that have historically been forced apart.

We are very interested in your contribution to the course, so look out for the weekly emails where we will be discussing the major themes emerging from your comments. The mentors will be engaging regularly in discussion, and the host will be able to answer any platform-related queries you may have. We encourage you to follow the members of the Medicine and the Arts course team by clicking the links below:

Susan Levine (Lead Educator)
Steve Reid (Lead Educator)

Thulasizwe Clements (Host and Mentor)

You can also learn more about us by visiting our more detailed biographies here:

Associate Professor Susan Levine
Professor Steve Reid

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This video is from the free online course:

Medicine and the Arts: Humanising Healthcare

University of Cape Town