The Digital Crossroads of Medicine and the Humanities

mnebiolo's picture

When I reflect on how the digital humanities impact the study of health and medicine, my mind jumps to two points. First, I am reminded of the numerous possibilities the digital world can provide to users around the world. The digital humanities offer efficient communication and proliferation of information that surpasses the speed with which knowledge has been transmitted in the past. Websites like WebMD allow for quick “self-diagnoses” of health problems if someone begins to feel ill. Other more reliable sources of medical knowledge include online courses, digital models, and videos that are available to a universal audience. However, the benefits of the digital platform for studying health are limited to people who have regular access to the internet and who have the skills to navigate it successfully. Through my experience of integrating digital humanities into historical work, I believe the same tenets apply to the ways that digital platforms present health and medicine. These precepts include providing reliable sources to back up statements or presentations, linking other helpful resources the audience may want, and an effective platform for presenting information as clearly as possible.

Secondly, I think about the ways in which the humanities can improve the investigation and study of medicine through digital means. As Phil Agre notes in “Toward a Critical Technical Practice: Lessons Learned in Trying to Reform AI,” hard science fields, like computer science and medicine, lack the self-critical skills to do historiographical analysis of themselves, which humanists, digital or otherwise, can help address.[1] Kirsten Osthurr notes something similar in her response to this MediaCommons thread by noting, “Now, both of these groups [digital humanist and computer scientists] should join forces with medical humanists to design techniques for better understanding human experiences of illness through big health data.”[2] I agree, and believe a partnership between the humanities and medical fields would produce a rich repository of primary materials for historians of health and medicine. This would provide new knowledge about the trajectories of the public health and medical fields and help science professionals better comprehend social trends and feeling towards medicine. While security restrictions like HIPAA regulate what medical information becomes public, humanists can still contribute to the study and improvement of the health sciences if repositories of medical information are digitally available. Looking ahead to a stronger partnership between the two fields, more critical analysis can assist in bridging the sociocultural boundaries that exist between communities and the health and medical fields. I am thinking specifically about the social discomfort patients have towards doctors, fear or skepticism about westernized treatments, and the overall incredulity Americans have with their health care.

As a historian of science and medicine, it is fascinating to see how the field of medicine could return to its practical roots because of digital humanities. Medicine and surgery were once trade skills that mothers, neighbors, and butchers practiced. As the field professionalized, these techniques were solidified into one career, that of the doctor. Now, with the availability of digital studying tools open to a wider audience, we could soon see a trend back to a larger community knowing set skills and techniques. The comeback of the midwife is also a prime example of how the influence of the humanities could help with the practice of medicine. There are social reasons why women are avoiding hospitals, which physicians may want to study so they can adapt to cultural needs. With increased availability of open-source data for humanists, albeit information that has been filtered through HIPAA, medical decisions based on social trends can be better understood and attended to in the future. Overall, a relationship between the digital humanities and medicine benefits both audiences of online platforms that educate on health and medicine, and medical scientists who may need a humanistic perspective to better understand the data trends their work is producing.


[1] Agre, Philip. “Toward a Critical Technical Practice: Lessons Learned in Trying to Reform AI.” Bridging the Great Divide: Social Science, Technical Systems, and Cooperative Work. New York, NY: Psychology Press, 1997.

[2] Ostherr, Kirsten. “It’s Time for Digital Humanities.” MediaCommons.