University of Calgary

Symposium explores medicine through lens of humanities

UToday HomeApril 1, 2013

Margaret Sutherland’s paintingMargaret Sutherland’s painting, Sticky, provoked a rich discussion between students, medical staff, humanities scholars, and the artist herself.Medicine is associated with the sciences such as chemistry, biology and physiology; however, many medical professionals will say that the liberal arts and humanities, such as art, history and communications, also have a vital role in medicine and medical education.

Earlier this month, the Faculty of Medicine hosted the first annual Humanities in Health Care symposium designed to promote greater use of the humanities in medical education, subsequently influencing practice.

“The idea is if medical students and physicians are exposed to the liberal arts, they may be able to better understand the experience of illness rather than just the experience of disease,” says Dr. Ian Mitchell, co-chair of the symposium and a member of the university’s Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute for Child and Maternal Health and the Institute for Public Health.

“As physicians, we may be inclined to look only at the disease and we may miss the patient behind that disease.”

Incorporating the humanities into medicine isn’t a new concept. Currently, the Faculty of Medicine incorporates courses such as ethics, the history of medicine, and communication courses into its curriculum, alongside additional electives based on humanities.

“Over the past century, medical schools and the national colleges that accredit them have struggled to find the best balance between time spent on humanities subjects and on the biological sciences and how to integrate the two,” says Dr. Tom Rosenal, professor emeritus at the University of Calgary and co-chair of the symposium. “The role of the symposium was organized specifically to increase the profile of the humanities and to develop stronger ties with the humanities scholars at the University of Calgary.”

The symposium included keynote speakers and student presentations regarding the nature of humanities in health care today, and welcomed a painting titled Sticky, which was created by artist Margaret Sutherland. The painting portrays an elderly woman on the floor with sticky notes on her back, exhibiting negative terms on them, on her back.

“We felt the painting provided a good opportunity to explore how the medical system labels people — what those labels say about us as ‘viewers’ of patients, and how the labels can be harmful,” says Dr. Monica Kidd, a family physician at the University of Calgary who led this part of the symposium. “We had students, medical staff, humanities scholars and the artist herself, participate in the session. The discussion was very rich.”


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