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Stanford doctor argues the medical humanities are a “must-have”

healing_arts_2In a first-person piece in the winter issue of Stanford Medicine magazine, anesthesiologist and poet Audrey Shafer, MD, argues that the medical humanities are a necessary, critical discipline of modern medicine.

In some places, these might be fighting words. But here at Stanford, home to a flourishing community of artist-physicians, author-physicians, musician-physicians and more, nearly everyone agrees — yes, the humanities matter.

Nonetheless, Shafer, who founded and directs Stanford's Medicine and the Muse program, supports her assertion with eloquence:

The arts, humanities and social sciences teach us both to look outside of ourselves and to look within: to explore, examine and record what it means to be human. What do health, illness, suffering and healing mean? What is caring? What is the experience of exhaustion, loss and grief? Such inquiries enable us to think critically about what we do, what we say, how we affect others, how our relationships are tied to our choices and perspectives, and, ultimately, how we live.

Creativity, an inherent component of the medical humanities, can lead to new lines of research and improved therapies. A fresh perspective — from a poem, a performance, a painting — can rejuvenate a harried clinician or a frustrated researcher. It can kindle empathy, helping patient and physician alike. "Art weaves us into the fabric of humanity," Shafer writes.

And it is everyone, Shafer believes, who can benefit from a quick dip or a long soak in the medical humanities:

The human condition has tragedy and sorrow, transcendence, curiosity and grace. Rather than shy away from these complex areas of human experience, medical humanities embraces them. If you have not heard of medical humanities: hello and welcome!

Previously: What art and the humanities bring to medicine: a look from Stanford Medicine magazine, Stanford med students hone their storytelling skills under the stars and Stanford anesthesia faculty and staff share their hidden talents
Photo of Audrey Shafer by Timothy Archibald

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