Symposium Report: ‘Doctor, doctor: Global and historical perspectives on the doctor-patient relationship’

ConSciCom team member Alison Moulds discusses the medical humanities symposium she co-organised earlier this year.

Symposium Poster

On 24 March 2017, a one-day symposium – ‘Doctor, doctor: Global and historical perspectives on the doctor-patient relationship’ – was held at St Anne’s College, University of Oxford. It was organised by myself and Sarah Jones, a DPhil Candidate in French. The event was funded by a Medical Humanities programme grant from The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH), the Constructing Scientific Communities project, and St Anne’s College.

The symposium explored practitioner-patient interactions across different cultural contexts and throughout history. From the outset, our aim was to encourage interdisciplinary and international perspectives on medical humanities. We were particularly keen to attract researchers working in languages other than English and on non-Anglophone cultures. Sarah and I were delighted with the response to our call for papers, which far exceeded our expectations.

Our final line-up for the event featured more than 30 speakers, working across a range of disciplines (from Classics to Anthropology, Literature to Sociology) and based in a range of countries (from Italy to Russia, Spain to the United States). There were humanities scholars and clinicians, as well as individuals who bridged the divide or worked in other areas, such as on creative projects. Various career stages were represented in the programme – from Masters and PhD candidates to senior academics working in the medical humanities. The event attracted more than 70 attendees also drawn from diverse backgrounds, from general practice to fine art.

Poster presentations

Poster presentations during lunch: Douglas Morgan (KCL)

The symposium opened with a keynote presentation from Dr Anna Elsner, Senior Researcher at the Center for Medical Humanities at the University of Zurich. Elsner’s paper examined the representation of clinical encounters in twentieth-century French literature alongside medical and bioethical research on the physician-patient relationship. The rest of the day was divided into parallel panels on themes ranging from medicine and material culture to institutional experiences of healthcare, and from classical to early modern medicine. Individual papers touched on issues such as medical case reports, cancer narratives, patient photography, and transgender healthcare. During lunch we had two poster presentations from Douglas Morgan and Farah Chowdhury, MSc Medical Humanities students at King’s College London.

Throughout the day there were opportunities for networking and it was wonderful to see colleagues from different disciplines and institutions sharing their interests and establishing connections.

The broad range of papers enabled participants to consider how representations and experiences of illness have changed over time and across different contexts and how patients’ expectations about their healthcare interventions have shifted. It was fascinating to see the different types of sources researchers drew upon in their work; medical textbooks, musical theatre, oral interviews, and archival documents such as court records were all scrutinised for the insights they offered into the medical encounter. Among the major themes arising from the symposium was how the doctor-patient relationship is rarely a 1:1 exchange; instead it takes place against a backdrop of other interactions. Patients also come into contact with nurses and other healthcare practitioners, while doctors interact with the patient’s friends and family. Attendees discussed how both doctors and patients bring personal experiences and attitudes to the specific medical encounter.

After the symposium, we circulated a follow-up survey among attendees to evaluate the event. We received 18 responses, which represented around 25% of attendees. Respondents were asked to rate aspects of the symposium on a scale of 1-6 (from low-high); the event programme received an average score of 5.6. We asked attendees what they enjoyed most about the event, giving them the opportunity of a free-text response. Delegates cited various aspects including the ‘varied programme’, the ‘vibrant and enthusiastic atmosphere’, and the ‘range of disciplines and voices represented’. The multi-disciplinary nature of the event was seen as particularly profitable: when asked whether the event had changed their views, one participant suggested that it was useful to hear from clinicians as they offered insights different from the ‘theoretical’ approach of medical humanities. The paper by Riana Betzler (postdoctoral fellow at the Konrad Lorenz Institute for the Advanced Study of Natural Complex Systems in Austria) was praised by a number of attendees as having challenged their preconceptions about the role of empathy in doctor-patient interactions.

It was a packed day (especially for a Friday!) and one of our key conclusions is that we would have loved to expand the symposium into a longer event. Several delegates suggested they would have enjoyed further opportunities for networking and exchange, while others wished they could have attended more sessions rather than choosing between parallel panels!

Closing remarks

Symposium organisers Sarah Jones and Alison Moulds

The purpose of the symposium was to create a diverse network of scholars working in the medical humanities and we intend to build on the success of the event. Further details regarding the symposium’s legacy will be announced on the website in due course: