The Value of Medical History
By Sallya Aleboyeh, MEDS 2019
A group of passionate and curious medical students chose to venture to Ottawa on the Family Day weekend this past February. Instead of visiting their families, they dove into history, with a group of equally-passionate curators and assistant legislators to Elizabeth May who also gave up time to give us private tours of:
- The Preservation Centre in Gatineau, which houses vaults filled with paintings, media and lots of important archives
- The Museum of Science and Technology’s Storage Facility (which is apparently cooler than the museum itself)
This year was the final time Dr. Jacklyn Duffin, Hannah Professor in the History of Medicine, organized the history of medicine trip, making the fate of future trips uncertain. So instead of telling you how cool everything was (hopefully the photos can show that), I thought I’d share the value I see in keeping the tradition alive.
1. Cool Architecture: The Role of design, décor and architecture in medicine
Arriving at our first stop, the Gatineau Preservation Centre, what stood out most was the architecture. The vaults were inside a huge cement box that looked like the set of a parkour film; while the top floor, where restoration was done, resembled a Lego village complete with primary colour paints and street names for corridors. Whether you cared about the science behind restoring artifacts or not, the design was very hard to ignore.
On a day-to-day basis, physicians not only interact with patients, but with their environment as well. While it’s not practical or financially viable to have an architect design each hospital as a unique piece of art, the impact of space is large enough to warrant investing some thought. There are already lots of examples of environment helping with patient or doctor experiences:
- Having windows in the ICU rooms to help with delirium
- Having paintings/magazines in waiting rooms to make wait times seem shorter
- Having healing gardens to reduce stress for patients and health care workers
- Having cartoon characters on walls in children’s hospitals
- Having the nursing station in the middle of a room, visible to all patients, to reduce anxiety
- Decorating your office with pictures of family to make working there more enjoyable.
(for more evidence of the importance of environment in health- check out this NYT article here!)
Obviously, during an emergency, it won’t matter how aesthetically pleasing the sheets or walls are, but the vast majority of hospital interactions with patients and among health care workers aren’t immediately urgent. In these instances, a little interior design can work its subtle magic on people’s mood and their interactions because we all (I think) appreciate pretty things. It’s why chefs create garnishes and why companies invest in packaging. In the long run these small effects can add up to increase overall wellbeing and happiness.
2. Studying History is humbling and reminds you that your actions might outlive you
If you’ve ever been to a really old place, you’ll know that you get a strange surreal feeling, like you are experiencing something bigger than yourself (hopefully it’s not just me). When I was 16 and my mom took me to the ruins of Persepolis (wiki: “the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire”) and I felt it for the first time while trying to imagine what it looked like thousands of years ago before Alexander attacked it. It reminds you at once of how insignificant you are and how capable you are of creating something that can last for generations after you are gone.
The profession of medicine can be demanding: long hours, bad news, on call shifts, high stake decisions and emotional fatigue to name but a few. It’s in these moments when remembering that you’re working towards something bigger helps. One day when we’ve all left this planet, curators, historians and medical students may look through the ultrasound machines, pacemakers and lounge room coffee machines we used and try to uncover the story of our daily lives. We can’t predict which of the thousands of items we see and use in our lifetime will survive as artifacts, but we can choose what kind of story they tell.
3. History is full of lessons and wisdom
Finally, most important of all is that history is an endless resource of wisdom and lessons. We constantly look to our tutors, teachers and mentors for guidance for medicine because it’s easily accessible; but why stop there?
From history you can learn to be creative, and to draw inspiration from new places. Over the course of the weekend, we saw multiple examples of technology from other industries being adapted to medicine.
- The cloth used to make sails being used as a backing for fragile paintings
- Ultrasound machines being used to detect aircraft defects and in the navy before being applied to medicine
- The Fibroscan for the liver coming from cheese manufacturing (I technically learnt this in class after the trip but it helps prove the point)
History’s mistakes teach us to not just accept what we’ve been told but to dig deeper and ask questions because things may not be what they seem. During our visit to the Storage room, the curator’s personal research on artifacts in the storage revealed that Sir William Osler – a great Canadian medical teacher – may have used the remains of aboriginal bodies for research purposes. Another inquiry led the curator to discover that models of babies with syphilis were used to promote eugenics and not medical education as previously believed. If we remain passive in our learning and acceptance of new information, it’s often the patient who will pay the price.
(In conclusion) I hope there will be many more history of medicine trips to come because there is still a lot that history can teach us (and lots of cities to be seen) before we begin our practices.
A version of this blog post appeared previously on the Medicine and Literature blog. Find it here. Thanks to Sallya Aleboyeh for her permission to repost it here.
Museum of Health Care event to highlight “Medicine in the Making”
Medical artefacts from the Museum of Health Care will be on display in the Grand corridor of the new Medical Building on Friday, September 25 from 9:30 a.m. – 2:30 p.m.
UGME Associate Dean Anthony Sanfilippo and Dr. Susan Lamb (adjunct assistant professor of history of Medicine) will be on hand over the lunch hour.
Curated by Museum of Health Care staff and QuARMS student Chantal Valiquette as part of a summer service project, “Medicine in the Making” is open to all to attend.
Student wins prize for project on physicians with disabilities
What started as a project for her Critical Enquiry class turned into an award-winning poster presentation for Kirsten Nesset of MEDS 2017.
Nesset attended the 24th annual History of Medicine Days Conference at the University of Calgary in March where she won Best Poster Presentation for “Physicians with Disabilities in Canada: History and Future”.
Classmates Elena Barbir and Sophie Palmer also attended the conference, presenting on their Community-Based Projects. The three received the Boyd Upper Prize, which is awarded to the Queen’s medical student or students who have conducted original historical research and then had the work accepted for presentation at a peer-reviewed meeting.
Nesset’s interest in the area of disability started at home, she explained in an interview.
“It was something I was really interested in because my father has a visual disability and he’s an engineer,” she said. “He lost his vision when I was about 10 – so I grew up with him adapting to that and his work making accommodations.” And this got her thinking.
“You don’t really see many people with visual or physical disabilities in medicine and I wondered what the accommodations might look like for them and what kind of policy might be in place if there was any,” she said. “I wondered what that looked like in Canada.”
She quickly discovered that there wasn’t much information readily available. “It ended up being a much more global project in the end because there’s very little research in Canada,” she said.
As her CE Mentor, Jacalyn Duffin, pointed out: “Her first discovery was that almost no one had published on that topic, although there was a robust literature on burnout, stress, addictions and other mental problems.”
“The absence of any historical predecessors meant that she had to do some original digging, to produce what is effectively the first history on the topic and to try to explain why the question has not been asked before,” Duffin added. “Her research involved searching the literature, news reports, and eventually interviews.”
“Although Kirsten’s focus was Canada, she discovered that a relative silence on physicians with disabilities pervades the literature in general, making her findings relevant well beyond our borders,” Duffin said.
Nesset has plans to continue research in this area. To start, she plans to interview some physicians through the Canadian Association of Physicians with Disabilities. “Some physicians have come forward to say they would be interviewed – because there isn’t a lot of narrative from Canada yet.”
She would also like to delve further into what medical schools list as technical requirements for graduates. “Part of my project was looking into admissions requirements and there’s nothing in those but there’s a lot of talk about meeting technical standards and technical requirements and each school approaches that differently,” she said.
As she is starting her clerkship rotations in the fall, Nesset is hoping to complete some interviews by the end of the summer, but sees this as a longer-term project.
“Realistically, this is something I’ll carry through the next year and hopefully finish up part-way through clerkship.”
One strong lesson from this project is that history does not necessarily mean antiquity or even a few hundred years ago, Nesset said. “From my experience, history can also be incredibly recent. I looked at history as of 1980, essentially, or 1975. Then up until now, which is why it’s titled ‘history and future’.”
“A history of medicine project doesn’t necessarily mean you’re looking far back in the past, it can be more recent and you can apply it to future considerations, for example for policy development,” she said.
We’d like to feature news about our students’ achievements at conferences such as this. If you have a suggestion for a student to feature in a future blog post, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll follow-up on as many as we can.