An insightful look into artful health care

(Edmonton) Researchers at the University of Alberta are at the helm of an emerging discipline that may someday change the way doctors and health-care professionals provide care for patients.

Medical health humanities is a developing interdisciplinary field in which researchers are asking pressing questions related to patients’ experiences and provision of care. At the U of A, scholars have come together to ask people to imagine a health-care profession that bridges disciplines that have worked independently for centuries.

Aidan Rowe, professor of art and design and one of the curators of Insight: Visualizing Health Humanities, says the multidisciplinary exhibition exemplifies the university’s commitment to breaking down silos and fostering interdisciplinary research that benefits all of society.

“This is the fascination of a huge research-intensive university—in reality there are tons of little individual bits, but the sum of them is one of the reasons I love designing at the U of A, versus an art and design school,” he says. “If we’re not having these discussions and debates and collaborating with each other, I don’t know if that really fulfills our broader mission of asking critical questions.”

The exhibition is just one outcome of discussions being held on a degree program that will distinguish the U of A among Canadian universities, says co-curator Pamela Brett-MacLean, director of Arts and Humanities in Health and Medicine. It also shows that the university is a place where learning and discovery, including unconventional approaches, are encouraged. Brett-MacLean says that, by developing the program, the university recognizes that there’s more to training health-care professionals than has been realized.

“To be a good doctor or a good health professional of any kind, there’s more than just the science of medicine,” she says. “It is appreciating the historical, social or epidemiological aspects that relates to people’s experience of illness and how to communicate well with them in terms of helping people. This exhibit contributes to the discussions on creating the graduate program.”

By creating what Brett-MacLean describes as a community-wide conversation, the discussion poses questions pertinent to medical professionals. Primary among those queries is, “What would health care that considers input from scholars in the humanities look like?”

That question has sparked some imaginative ideas within and outside the university community.

Rowe says one result is the one-of-a kind exhibition, which features 32 works by students, printmakers, medical professors, alumni, filmmakers, librarians, health-care professionals, educators, dramatists and medical doctors. The show, which is at the FAB Gallery until June 9, includes a play entitled Just Keep Breathing, about a pediatric intensive care unit at the U of A. The play premieres June 7 and 8 at 8 p.m. and June 9 at 2 p.m. at 2-190 Edmonton Clinic Health Academy. Featured also is a video installation based on the experiences of a youth with Tourette syndrome. U of A art and design professor Bonnie Sadler Takach is also a curator.

Rowe says the exhibition tries to make tangible seemingly invincible issues on health. “Many of the pieces speak to the humanizing or the dehumanizing process that sometimes takes place in the medical profession. There are a few pieces that are quite cathartic and those are balanced by professional educational video. We have a few pieces that are intended for a variety of audiences,” he says.

Brett-MacLean says the show also helps lay the foundation for further developments and broaden understanding of what it means to provide complete health care.

“The visual piece tends to engage us much more viscerally, and I think it will inspire many more conversations about health and its various meanings, and the significance of tending to these things well—to our collective health and well-being and our individual illness, experiences of suffering and experiences of caring.

“In medicine there has been an emphasis on biological sciences that overwhelms the concern around compassionate caring and being with patients. If that imbalance is in place then you’re at risk of just tending to the symptoms and not caring for the patients.”

A way in which medical health humanities may manifest in practice could be the extent of doctors’ considerations in treating patients. If a doctor, for example, focuses only on patients’ symptoms and does not consider their personal history, patients may be inclined to leave out pertinent information related to their overall health.

On the other hand, Brett-MacLean says, “If you’re open to the patient’s story you’d understand that an illness experience is a story unfolding and you’re part of that story,” she says. “Often our senses are muted either by technological interface, habit or routines. One of the significant contributions of this exhibition is that it contributes to creating a culture where we could think deeply and reflexively about these issues together.”