Sarah Wieten, PhD student at the University of South Florida, writes: At the end of September the University of Western Michigan in Kalamazoo, Michigan welcomed over 100 presenters and participants to the 3rd annual Medical Humanities Conference. With many veteran presenters, the conference seems to be hitting its stride as an important event for those in philosophy, bioethics, medicine and the traditional medical humanities under the capable direction of Director, Dr. Fritz Allhoff and Assistant Director, David Charlton.

I am told that in the past this conference was small enough to allow for non-concurrent sessions. This year the volume of presenters made that an impossibility, forcing participants to choose between one of three concurrent sessions. While I have had excellent experiences at very small workshop-type conferences in which every participant attended most every session, this model of concurrent sessions seems unavoidable for successful and growing annual conferences. My background in philosophy and bioethics drew me to those presentations which featured themes from these disciplines. However, an interest in what exactly medical humanities and the concept of narrativity entail did draw me to a diverse set of presentations.

One of these was “Understanding Addiction through Literature: Emergent Themes in an Interdisciplinary Seminar” delivered by Katie Grogan (NYU School of Medicine, Master Scholars Program in Humanistic Medicine & Department of Medicine) Grogan described the successful co-curricular program for health professionals that used literature about addiction to discuss standard stereotypes and attitudes towards those with addictions. The class continually offered opportunities for self reflection on the part of the health professional participants. These self reflections were captured and provided case-based evidence for the oft made claim that exposure to the medical humanities facilitates feelings and expressions of empathy toward patients.

The power of the written word to enact change was also on display in David Rochefort‘s (Northwestern University, Political Science) “Protest through Reification of the System in Contemporary Health Policy Fiction.” In his presentation, Rochefort focused on the ways in which literature and memoirs such as “So Much For That” and “72 Hour Hold”, which describe people navigating the complex medical “system,” actually impart significant factual and technical information regarding this experience, rather than focusing only on the frustrations and deprivations that result from a failed encounter with the reified “system.” Now that the status of these sort of works as presenting both detailed accounts of how this system works as well as the kinds of emotions elicited by attempting to navigate this system, the place of these works as an important voice for change is further solidified.

A timely presentation was jointly given by Paula Alexander-Delpech, (ARNP College of Health Sciences) and Ruth Tallman, (Barry University, Philosophy) entitled, “The Affordable Care Act and the Impact of Health Literacy on Historically Underserved Populations.” Given just days before the Affordable Care Act was due to take effect, this presentation focused on the ways in which a lack of health literacy would stunt the possible success of the program, and contribute to existing health disparities. Steps have been taken to address these issues by introducing “navigators” in communities to guide first time users through the largely online process and provide information about where and how to receive heath care and information. However, because there are so few navigators and some states have not allowed these professionals to take their positions, much more needs to be done in order to deal with this issue of lowered health literacy. This presentation was an excellent nod to the way in which medical humanities and bioethics can inform public policy.

The keynote address given by Dr. Arthur Derse (Director of the Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities and Director for Medical and Legal Affairs at the Medical College of Wisconsin) focused on best methods for implementation and sustainability of medical humanities programs. He presented curriculums and activities from several different schools, identified the sort of personnel that can be helpful in the implementation of these departments and discussed the exciting new developments at Western Michigan’s new medical school. While this talk was interesting and informative, it struck me as being rather poorly tailored to the audience. Participants and presenters at a medical humanities conference seem to be the sort of people who would need the least convincing of the worth of the medical humanities and since they are likely to come from institutions with already existing medical humanities programs, a talk on how to construct these programs seems somewhat superfluous. However, if taken as a general history of the rise of medical humanities programs these remarks were quite enlightening.

Overall the emphasis in the concluding remarks of many presentations did seem to be on the importance of devising methods for convincing medical personnel that medical humanities and the concept of narrativity provide added value and enhanced medical empathy and professionalism over and above traditional components to medical training, such as courses in effective communication and decision making. Such an emphasis makes me wonder, as the medical humanities gain more acceptance, what will be the content of these conferences when the medical humanities are (as they ought to be) accepted as a legitimate part of a medical education? I am interested to see how this development will change the scope and themes of these sort of conferences in the future as I certainly plan to attempt to participate in the Western Michigan University Medical Humanities Conference again next year.


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