Therapists aren’t the only medical professionals who should know how to talk about feelings.
According to Amy Kennedy, an internal medicine resident in Pittsburgh, compassion is a skill all doctors need in order to best serve their patients.
“By using stories, we have a better way to empathize with our patients and improve patient-physician satisfaction,” Kennedy explained.
Along with students and faculty, Kennedy and 31 other researchers met for the Humanities in Health conference Thursday to analyze the role the humanities have in medical science. Pitt’s Department of Linguistics, Department of Family Medicine and Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Services hosted the conference from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the University Club.
Ranging from athletic coaches preventing dating violence to Iranian research ethics, the conference allowed researchers to showcase their methods and present theses on the idea that humanities alongside medical practices humanize patients and doctors alike.
Kennedy showcased her presentation of a set of narrative essays by medical residents, which brought a human aspect to the patients at the Birmingham Free Clinic. Part of the Salvation Army, the clinic is the only free clinic in Pittsburgh for uninsured people.
She said the essays, part of a practice she called “narrative medicine,” develop stronger relationships between doctors and patients.
“Listening to stories, reflecting on stories, [doctors] reflecting on each other’s stories,” Kennedy said. “Ultimately, we hope to get the patients involved in helping edit [the narratives].”
For William Hasek, a postdoctoral fellow at Washington & Jefferson College studying psychology who presented at the conference, humanities and medicine converge through cognitive assessment manuals — scripts doctors are required to follow when assessing patients’ general intelligence, nonverbal intelligence, attention, memory and motor function.
He said the manual that contains those scripts falls short because it restricts doctors from knowing how to react when patients say unexpected, emotion-driven things that don’t fit into the outline.
“The issue is the manual doesn’t give you any guidance on how to respond, and sometimes you have to violate the script in order to manage those feelings,” Hasek said.
The study Hasek presented consisted of his observations of medical professionals administering cognitive assessments. He took note each time they broke the script, why they did so and how they dealt with the situation free form.
When one of his patients began talking about discovering his deceased wife’s body, Hasek said, he realized the manual’s guidance didn’t help him deal with the man’s emotions.
“On the one hand, I want to be empathic. He’s telling me something painful and I want to be supportive, but at the same time, we do have to get the test done,” Hasek said. “Situations like these can lead to patients doubting their medical professionals, which can result in bad decision making when it comes to accepting treatment.”
Hasek’s research began building an answer to this problem, he said, but there’s still a long way to go before the issue is resolved.
For Erica Hom, a senior studying linguistics and Russian, the conference wasn’t just about the research. The biggest takeaway for her, she said, was the prospect of getting a job.
“I am looking for ways I can use my degree and what I’ve learned in a university setting for my career,” Hom said. “I really want to go into child care or nonprofit work. [One presentation] I went to was about how we can restructure how we teach children about gender. I think that’s important to know for someone who wants to work with children.”
Hom said the conference gave her insight into how humanities degrees can be put to good use in nontraditional fields, like medicine.
At her job, Hom said she volunteered with a 50-year-old woman who wanted to have a second child, but her doctor told her it was likely too risky, and she cried for weeks over it.
Hom said the woman’s story helped her realize that if the doctor had been trained in how to handle emotional situations, perhaps they could’ve helped her work through her disappointed emotions.
“[That] lack of understanding how another person is going to take this information is something that also affects their health,” Hom said. “It affects their mental health — which is important.”