Australasian Health and Medical Humanities Network Launch and Inaugural Symposium

By Elizabeth Stephens, Claire Hooker, Keren Hammerschlag, Sandra Carr, and Karin Sellberg

The Australasian Health and Medical Humanities Network was launched on June 3 2021, with a virtual symposium attended by over a hundred researchers, teachers and practitioners in the field, mostly based locally. The new network represents a collective recognition of the need to consolidate resources and share information amongst those working in this sector, and follows a period in which a disparate range of teaching programs and research networks in the Health and Medical Humanities have flourished in various institutions across Australia and the region. While activity in this area has intensified appreciably, and unsurprisingly, during the course of the current pandemic, it has also been hindered by new funding models now being implemented in Australia that financially discriminate between STEM and HASS fields, rather than encouraging collaborative work between them.

It seemed timely to consolidate these disconnected programs and local networks into a regional network. The purpose of the Australasian Health and Medical Humanities Network is accordingly to provide a centralised forum for teachers, researchers and practitioners in this field to network and collaborate, and to share information and resources. It aims to advocate collectively for the development of this field, doing so in collaboration with our international partner networks, while also recognising the geographic, temporal and institutional specificity of the Australasian context.

The inaugural Australasian Health and Medical Humanities Network symposium was designed to launch the network by showcasing current work in the Health and Medical Humanities in Australia, in both teaching and research, as well as providing a forum for networking and discussion amongst all participants. The network was launched by Associate Professor Elizabeth Stephens (University of Queensland), network founder and convenor, who also chaired the symposium. (The website and symposium were supported by her Australian Research Council Future Fellowship “Understanding Collaboration Between the Arts and Sciences” FT170100214.)

The proceedings began with an inaugural lecture by Professor Catherine Mills, Director of the Monash Bioethics Centre at Monash University. Her lecture, “Experimenting on Future Children: Early Adopters and the Ethics of Technology Innovation in Human Reproduction,” examined the use of CRISPR-Cas9 as a technology for human reproductive genome editing. Focusing on recent experiments in China and Russia, Catherine’s lecture deftly outlined the complex social and ethical effects that early adoption of innovative technologies in the context of human reproduction may have, focusing on scientists, women, and future children. This approach—rigorously philosophical, carefully historical, attentive to broader cultural networks—set the tone for a productive panel discussion about the current state of play in the health and medical humanities in Australasia.

Each of the four presenters in the panel session has played a key role in the development of the health and medical humanities in Australia: Dr Claire Hooker (Sydney) is the founder and convenor of the Arts Health Network NSW; Dr Keren Hammerschlag (ANU) is the founder and convenor of the Visual Medical Humanities network; Professor Sandra Carr (UWA) is the founder and convenor of the undergraduate major in Humanities for Health and Medicine at UWA. Dr Karin Sellberg (UQ), who provided a formal response, is the founder and convenor of the UQ Medical Humanities Network.

Dr Claire Hooker began her presentation with a brief overview of early Medical Humanities programs offered in Australia, including a Masters in Medical Humanities offered in the Faculty of Arts at Sydney in 2003 (https://research.avondale.edu.au/nh_papers/137/) and a Masters of Medical Humanities offered by the Faculty of Medicine there in 2007. In this period, Claire noted, the Medical Humanities were focused on providing enrichment and humanistic learning for medical students, junior doctors and, often, mid to late career physicians. Its core intellectual concerns were centred on supporting the development and maintenance of physician empathy, and developing a virtue-ethics based appreciation of ‘values based medicine’. https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/212687786.pdf

This early version of the Medical Humanities had a number of disciplinary limitations, however: it did not include nursing, allied health, or the voices of patients and carers; and it assumed exposure to art, music and poetry would among medical students would serve as a sort of empathy training. Further discussion of these issues can be found in a set of four articles in the BMJ Medical Humanities 2011, co-authored by John Harley Warner, Angela Woods, Claire Hooker, Estelle Noonan, and Paul Macneill, which set out the basis of a ‘Critical Medical Humanities’.

While the University of Sydney closed the Masters of Medical Humanities in 2012, Dr Hooker has since founded the Arts Health Network NSW/ACT www.artshealthnetwork.com.au and supported national and State policy development with advocate colleagues in the field. https://www.health.nsw.gov.au/arts/Documents/nsw-health-and-the-arts-framework-report.pdf.

Dr Keren Hammerschlag, Lecturer in Art History and Curatorship at the ANU, was the second panel presenter. Keren, a relatively recent arrival in Australia, discussed her involvement in the medical humanities in the UK and the US. Keren was recently awarded an ANU Futures Scheme grant to build the Visual Medical Humanities as an innovative, interdisciplinary field of inquiry at the ANU. In her presentation, she argued that the visual medical humanities has an important part to play in this new critical, entangled, medical humanities, described by Anne Whitehead and Angela Wood in their watershed 2016 collection of essays, The Edinburgh Companion to the Critical Medical Humanities. Encompassing museum studies, art history and art practice, she argued, the ‘critical’ visual medical humanities makes clear the particular capacity of art, craft and design to interrogate, critique and challenge our notions of medical progress, medical education, health and disease, anatomy and the body, bioethics and healthcare. It would emphasize the centrality of the visual in biomedicine and public health, and be global in scope and perspective. Hammerschlag is also the convenor of a symposium taking place on 22 July 2021 at ANU on the theme of ‘Visualising the Medical Humanities,’ and a seminar series on ‘Global Anatomies: A Cross-Cultural Study of Anatomy and its Representation,’ scheduled for 2021-2022. Further information on the symposium can be found here: https://healthmedicalhumanities.net.au/visualising-the-medical-humanities-a-symposium-anu-22-july/

The third panel presentation was by Professor Sandra Carr (UWA). Sandra discussed how he aim of health professional education has always been balancing the art of being a caring health professional alongside the medical and health science knowledge required for competent practice. This balance between the “art” and the “science” fluctuates in response to changing organisational structures and educational philosophies. At the University of Western Australia, changes focused on shorter graduate entry health programs (medicine, dentistry, podiatric medicine) and a dominant emphasis on medical science prerequisites appeared to shift the focus of education towards the sciences. As a known local leader in health professions education, Professor Carr recognised this imbalance and worked with the support of many clinicians and academics from across the humanities and health sciences to develop the first undergraduate major in Humanities for Health and Medicine offered in Australia. Since 2019, students have studied four core units focused on developing capabilities for caring required of future health professionals such as observation, listening and reflective capacity; valuing the narrative of health experiences; synthesising evidence and focusing on person centred approaches to caring and health care organisation. Alongside these core units students are able to pursue areas of interest in history, philosophy, sociology, literature, psychology, population health and/or Indigenous Health and typically complete a second in the health and medical sciences. This undergraduate pathway offers a balanced preparation for graduate entry degree as a health professional. More information about this Health Humanities at UWA is available from https://www.uwa.edu.au/study/courses/humanities-in-health-and-medicine or by emailing Sandra.Carr@uwa.edu.au

In response to these presentations, Dr Karin Sellberg (UQ) reflected on her own experiences at the University of Edinburgh, organising a number of medical humanities teaching and research initiatives, and compared those to her experiences at the University of Queensland.  While the UQ network has been very productive, as is often the case with trans-disciplinary initiatives, it has also encountered a number of structural and institutional hurdles. Health and medical humanities research in the US, the UK and Europe has tended to favour either a medical (clinical) or a humanities (critical) focus, Karin noted, with the vast majority of contributors to each project coming from either a medical or a humanities background. This is undoubtedly primarily due to the research and teaching funding structures we have to adhere to, but sometimes there is also unwillingness to fundamentally change our goals and methods. Although both parties are prepared to see the value of the other disciplinary viewpoint, we tend to stay within our methodological comfort zones. In many cases this provides fertile grounds for exchange, as rigorous disciplinary foundations are necessary for any successful trans-disciplinary communication, but it does decrease the chance of new unexpected outcomes emerging out of our shared ventures.

This element of the ‘unexpected’ is at the core of the research and teaching strategy in the local medical humanities research network at the University of Queensland, Karin explained, and it is one of the ways in which Australian health and medical humanities initiatives can make a significant contribution to the significantly more established research and teaching networks in the US, the UK and Europe. In Australia, smaller networks and institutions enable easy movement disciplinary boundaries. Dr Sellberg concluded by looking forward to collaborations that are truly trans-disciplinary, with cross-faculty ownership of events and project development, a shared set of goals that go beyond the usual parameters of each individual discipline, and a general ethos of mutual respect.

How the health and medical humanities develop as a field in the Australasian in the years ahead will depend on the collective activities of its members. The new network invites interested colleagues to subscribe for updates about local health and medical humanities activities here: https://healthmedicalhumanities.net.au. Email us to be listed as a member of the network here: info@healthmedicalhumanities.net.au.

Recordings of Professor Catherine Mills’ inaugural lecture and the panel presentations are available on our website here: https://healthmedicalhumanities.net.au/archive/

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