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Humanizing Medicine at Drew

Focus on the healing powers of music.

April 2018 – When you think of medical instruments, the djembe—a goblet-shaped West African drum—isn’t likely the first thing that springs to mind.

But for Paul Crawford, a professor of health humanities at the University of Nottingham, the djembe is an invaluable tool in the promotion of wellness, with the power to decrease anxiety and depression, reduce inflammation and stress hormone levels and enhance immune function.

Group drumming is one of many ways in which the medical and health humanities—or the application of art and the humanities to humanize both health care, health care education and health care practices (health humanities) and medical education and practices (medical humanities)—promise to improve health care.

The potential of both approaches was the subject of a symposium at Drew University’s Caspersen School of Graduate Studies. “Opening Doors: From the Medical to the Health Humanities” was convened by Dr. Paul Kadetz, the Robert Fisher Oxman Assistant Professor of Science and Society and director of Medical Humanities at Caspersen.

Crawford, the keynote speaker at the symposium, spoke movingly of the ways in which the health humanities can help to heal not only the patient but the clinician as well. He’s in an especially advantageous position to know. When the University of Nottingham offered him a chair in medical humanities, he said he’d prefer one in health humanities. Initially, the university demurred, explaining that there was no such field.

“I know,” Crawford replied. “I’m going to make it a field.” In the intervening decade he has done just that, working to mitigate what he described in his talk as the “production-line mentality” that prevails at so many hospitals. Instead, he offers an infusion of the arts and humanities, which are “so important to human life that they’re more important than medicine,” Crawford said.

As an example, he recalled working in a particularly grim mental hospital, a placement that dampened both his mood and his self-esteem. The prescription for his condition presented itself in the form of a clarinet melody, issuing from a nearby corridor. Following the music, he found the source: a patient, possibly playing for his own well-being. But Crawford was struck by the effect it had on his own psyche.

“I thought then, as I think now, ‘Who is recovering whom?,’” he said. It was a revelation that helped inform a nascent field, which, in turn, may prove to be a prescription for the ills of modern medicine.