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‘Only connect’: the case for public health humanities

Abstract

Humanities in health has until now been primarily understood to mean humanities in medicine and has generally failed to include public health. I will argue in this paper that the common justifications for the former—including increased empathy among practitioners—are at least as applicable, if not more, to the latter. Growing emphasis on the social determinants of health and cultural competency in public health require public health students and professionals to develop a nuanced understanding of the influence of social context on health behaviour and to empathise with people in difficult circumstances. Literary fiction has been demonstrated to have an impact on skills related to empathy and social intelligence. Further, translating epidemiological evidence into public policy is a core task of public health and there is a growing body of research to indicate that statistical evidence is more persuasive when combined with narrative evidence. In this article I explore similarities and differences between proposed humanities in public health and programmes in humanities in medicine and highlight research gaps and possible implications of a more expansive view of humanities in health.

  • Public health

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