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Health and Society Seminar




The Human Dimension in Medicine and Healthcare
An event by the Health and Society research cluster, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (CoHASS)

Health and Society research cluster launched with a round table event on Wednesday 25 April. This roundtable brought together academics and practitioners alike from the fields of humanities, social sciences, medicine and industry partners to share their experiences and discuss how greater communication skills can improve the healthcare industry. The cluster aims to increase health literacy and improve health communication to enhance healthy living in society.

In his introduction, Prof. KK Luke (Associate Dean – Research, CoHASS) shared his aspirations about how this roundtable can lead conversations as well as forge collaboration and friendship.

The Health & Society cluster was developed alongside the School of Humanities’ interdisciplinary research clusters that pursue issues of urgent concern with a thematic approach. Health & Society is a broad theme, and welcomes academics and researchers who wish to contribute towards the goals of helping the community.

The keynote speaker was Prof. Ane Haaland from Norway who discussed the importance of communication in healthcare with a specific focus on emotion and vulnerability in the doctor-patient relationship.

Prof Haaland studied the effects of communication on safety and health and is an advocate of clear and compassionate communication between healthcare professionals and their patients. Prof Haaland has developed a process training model that utilises reflective learning over time to inspire deep and sustainable learning.

Emotional development is such a low priority in medicine that many doctors-in-training take only one module on the subject during their studies. Patient communication is often left to the other healthcare professionals such as nurses, patient associates, caregivers and this can result in a gap in the relationship between doctor and patient.

However, for the patients that the doctors are attending to, communication is a priority. Aside from explaining medical jargon in simple terms so that patients and caregivers understand their condition, there is also a strong need for the patients to feel comfortable and trust the doctor. Aside from wanting a doctor who is medically competent, patients also want a doctor who is compassionate. Humanistic medicine is interdisciplinary and supports the shift from disease-centred to patient-centred care. It aims for open communication and mutual respect between healthcare professionals and their patients.

Healthcare professionals rank among the most stressed compared to other occupations. Statistics show that 69% of healthcare professionals experience acute stress and 17% identify as highly stressed. Prof Haaland noted that doctors tend to be high achievers who are not allowed to show vulnerability because it is perceived to be a weakness. Without an outlet to express pressure or stress, they often experience burn-out.

Sharing emotions helps people connect

Prof Haaland and her team developed a research study in collaboration with doctors and nurses in nine countries. The purpose of the study was to discover if doctors should learn to recognize and manage emotion as part of their communication training.

The study involved process training over six months since a simple one-day workshop would not have allowed participants time to internalize the training.

The team discovered that displaying vulnerability led to more participants sharing their emotions and several of them expressed relief at realizing that they were not alone.

The study’s conclusion was that emotional competence enables doctors to treat themselves and their patients with more patience and compassion.

The next speaker was Dr. Robyn Woodward-Kron from Melbourne Medical School at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Dr. Woodward-Kron detailed the ways in which her research crosses the disciplines of educational linguistics and medical education in order to translate healthcare communication research into practice. The following panel speakers introduced research and practice from a wide range of disciplines and professions. Prof. May O. Lwin introduced her research projects into the development and assessment of health communications based on psycho-social theoretical frameworks in order to improve the health outcomes of target audiences. Asst Prof. Graham Matthews highlighted some of the exciting research projects currently underway in the Medical Humanities research cluster​, including: ‘Doctoring the Elderly’ by Prof. Luke and Asst Prof. Lim Ni Eng; ‘Barefoot Doctors and Western Medicine in China’ by Fang Xiaoping; ‘Death Memoirs’ by Michelle Chiang; ‘Infectious Diseases along the Silk Road’ by Ivy Yeh Hui-Yan.

Dr. Tanya Tierney from LKC Medical School detailed her research interests in patient-centred communication and simulation-based training as well as her invaluable work establishing medical humanities modules at the medical school. The next speaker was Dr. Png Keng Siang, Consultant and Director of the NHG Urology Residency Program at Tang Tock Seng Hospital, who introduced some of the challenges in communication faced by medical practitioners during consultation and measures taken to enhance practitioners’ skills in this crucial area. Dr. Cheong Pak Yean from the NUHS Family Medicine Residency Programme offered insight into the changing landscape of medical consultations. These changes impact the therapeutic relationship, health seeking behaviour and healthcare costs. He argues that practitioners should seek to extend the usual consultation in order to integrate the biomedical and psycho-social dimensions of healthcare.

Finally, Michael Alzona, the Asia Pacific Patient Engagement Lead for MSD, introduced an industry perspective on the theme of health and society. Mr. Alzona is working to develop the company’s increased focus on integrating patient perspectives into healthcare, ensuring that their voices are heard on critical issues such as access to innovative drugs and budget allocation.

Overall, the inaugural event for the Health and Society brought together academics and professionals across a wide range of fields and focused their expertise on the issues of health communication and the human dimension of medicine. The field of the medical humanities is an expansive one and will produce many more productive conversations in the years to come.



This news item was first published in Constellations, the magazine for the Humanities in Singapore.