The Franklin Humanities Institute is implementing a new initiative that focuses on using the humanities to improve healthcare.

Deborah Jenson, the new Franklin Humanities Institute director and professor of French, Romance studies and global health, is leading efforts to integrate areas of the humanities with medical professions and patient care. As part of the "Health Humanities" initiative, the first event in April concentrated on using social media to engage patients, and following events included a group interview with autistic poet Tito Mukhopadhyay and a Sept. 15 discussion with senior Jay Ruckelshaus and other experts on disability advocacy. Ruckelshaus was paralyzed in a diving accident and helped dissect the issue of disability from a variety of approaches during the latest event. 

"The health humanities are concerned with what more broadly defines our lives—what makes people feel that they are well or unwell, and why," Jenson said. "We are also interested in the communities that form around the experience of various health problems, including autism, Alzheimer's and autoimmune diseases." 

Studies that fall under the umbrella of "health humanities" include interpretative social sciences, literature and art, among others.

The goal, Jenson said, is to incorporate these disciplines into medicine and healthcare, especially in patient-doctor relationships.

“Literature and art can help to sensitize care providers to what is at stake for patients—the vulnerability and hopes that are involved in seeking care," she added. "Health humanities illustrate the pursuit of empathy, and the humanities have always explored the themes of suffering and healing."

According to Jenson, the Health Humanities initiative was prompted by undergraduate interest in healthcare and the growing importance of medicine in modern society.

“We want to keep our finger on the pulse of society, so to speak," she said.

Dr. Dhipthi Mulligan, a psychiatrist at Duke Medicine, has been able to apply medical humanities to her own work, having developed courses that allow psychiatry residents to be more aware of certain language encountered in health settings. Awareness of language involving rhetoric and metaphors could enrich patient-doctor interactions and result in better patient care, she said. For instance, if a patient says, “I am in pieces,” a psychiatrist familiar with figurative language would be prompted to inquire about the patient’s daily life and figure out the root of the problem.  

“This could be just as valuable as a diagnostic test,” Mulligan said.

The FHI’s next steps are to develop programs such as a patient reading group for clinics and to create courses in health humanities for undergraduates. It also aims to make Duke a high-profile leader of health humanities by working with artists and writers in patient communities on new forms of expression, Jenson said.

Mya Sendak, a third-year medical student, is currently working with the FHI to bring diverse people together at Duke—including medical students, undergraduates, graduates, residents, faculty, healthcare professionals and administrators—in an effort to facilitate “cultural changes [that] develop more cohesive humanities communities in medicine.”

“In the future, we hope to create both a way for members of the public to engage with the humanities in relation to their own experiences and for students who are oriented toward health to understand how the humanities can be a vital part of their education,” Jenson said.