I’m just returning from what might be a medical humanities first. I was invited by John Green, an oncologist with an interest in medical humanities at the University of Liverpool, to address the biannual conference of the European Society for Gynaecologial Cancer in Liverpool. Because of his interests, John had set up a session dedicated to ‘Women’s Health and Wellbeing’ at which he wished me to speak. It was a great opportunity for me as I my clinical work as a colposcopist – as part of the cervical seeing programme – is in gynaecological cancer and the whole issue of women’s perception of their bodies, including understanding of what has actually been done to them and where, has concerned me in my work. I decided, therefore, to speak about the trajectory of a patient and clinician (doctor or nurse) through a diagnostic or treatment consultation focussing on the shifting perspectives from intersubjective to objective of both patient and clinician, and back again through the course of the consultation. I wanted to emphasise the importance of both, including the objectivising of the body so that the clinician can focus on the exercise of expert skill, and also for the patient, who may be better enabled to understand what has been done to her body.
The message seemed to be greeted favourably by the small number of clinicians who attended – about 50 out of the total 2500 who were registered for the conference. Earlier that day I attended a session on Cervical Cancer which filled the hall. This session comprised about six very short presentations on highly selective aspects of the science or epidemiology of this disease, with no nod at all to other perspectives in social science that might give some idea of how patients respond to changing treatment approaches or how they might – or might not – wish to make the choice to opt for treatment in the context of advanced disease. Looking through the programme, it was apparent that this was a general pattern. There was a session on ‘psycho-oncology’ which dealt with such matters. It seems that gynaecological oncologists are confirmed dualists!
Over dinner, I met with a group of highly committed leaders of patients groups, including one from London and another from Canada. They commented on this very problem, and, although pleased to be part of the conference, noted that they were there contributing to what were regarded as fringe sessions. It seems that there is much to do across the clinical specialties to ensure that patient experience, and other research orientated perspectives, including social science and humanities, get a hearing and become part of how clinicians begin to assess how they understand and go about their work. This is an important task for medical humanities as we endeavour to pursue a critically engaged approach to clinical science.