The humanities reflect on the expressions of culture in the past and the present and thereby prepare for challenges in the present and the future. Medical and health humanities are concerned with these tasks in the fields of medicine and health care. Examples of disciplines, which are particularly strong in the field of health, include ethics, history, philosophy, anthropology, as well as literature and film studies. Two questions surface: What is the status of medical humanities in academia? Is it legitimate to highlight these humanities as distinctive entities within the humanities in general? Regarding the first question about the status of medical humanities, historical and comparative perspectives help to find answers. For example, Germany underwent a phase with a strong focus on medical history from around the 1960s to the 1990s. This phase overlapped with the rise of medical ethics from around the 1980s to today. The reason for the former relative prominence of history among the medical humanities was, of course, the retrospective assessment of crimes against humanity under dictatorial rule in the first half of the twentieth century. Medical humanities need to be differentiated from each other, even though the umbrella term is tempting. They differ in relevance and academic representation between countries and traditions. The assessment of these issues is a topic for medical history, itself a part of the health humanities. Medical ethics in particular is a field with up-to-date contributions to contemporary problems in society and biopolitics. Regarding the second question, the significance of medical humanities as a distinctive and legitimate academic field needs to be reflected. What makes medical humanities special, and do good reasons separate them from the general humanities? Is the emergence of medical humanities just a historic accident, or do systematic considerations support their existence? A view from the sociology of professions may elucidate these questions. According to a predominantly structural-functional paradigm in sociological theory, professions respond to needs in society and help citizens to achieve fundamental values. Physicians care about health, lawyers about justice; teachers convey education, and theologians meaning in life. Health may be regarded as essential because only healthy people can pursue their goals autonomously. Diverting from structural-functional views does not undermine the fundamental concept of health for humankind. Therefore, medical humanities, through literature studies, may continue to inform both health care providers and patients about conditions that almost all are familiar with, like sickness, pain, suffering, limitations by deficits, and dependence on others.
In summary, medical humanities draw their significance from the fact that they are concerned with common human experiences regarding health and disease. They underwent heterogeneous pathways of development in different traditions. Given the common ground for human experiences, medical humanities will most likely benefit from exchange across academic cultures and with the humanities in general.