Humanities in Health Conference Set for April 7

Issue Date: 
March 28, 2016

What do the humanities have to do with medicine? To most, the idea of history, linguistics, stories, film, or art informing medical care might seem unlikely. An upcoming University of Pittsburgh conference will seek to change that perception.

On April 7, the Pitt Departments of Linguistics, Family Medicine, and Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Services will host the Humanities in Health Conference, an all-day event highlighting collaborations among medical clinicians and researchers and colleagues working in disciplines across the humanities. The event, which is free and open to the public, is part of Pitt’s Year of the Humanities in the University. Registration is required.

“The humanities are often eclipsed by the sciences,” said Abdesalam Soudi, conference chair and a Pitt visiting lecturer in linguistics. “Lots of people don’t think the humanities are helpful. But they’re very important in creating an engaged society. And in medicine, there are a number of social determinants of health, whether it’s language, culture, religion, or socioeconomic status—these factors influence our perceptions and experiences of health and illness.”

The conference will begin at 9 a.m. in Pitt’s University Club, with panels held in Ballrooms A and B. 

Presentations will address topics including the importance of patient narratives, medical ethics, the potential of social media in health communication, and understanding ethical values in communities struck by disaster. Several panels will address cultural competence, or the understanding and respect of cultural differences among patients. There will be presentations on the use of Ayurveda medicine to accommodate Indian-American immigrants and English-language issues in clinical care.

Conference participants will include the School of Medicine and Graduate School of Public Health, as well as the Departments of Religious Studies, English, and Neuroscience. Among the presenters will be faculty from Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Johns Hopkins University. Conference organizers expect the event will provide opportunities for networking. The sessions are also intended to assist Pitt students, particularly those in the humanities. 

“We’re hoping that by connecting the humanities and health, we’re creating opportunities and space in the health industry for our graduates,” said Soudi, who will lead a panel, “Connecting Linguistics to the Healthcare Industry,” which will highlight a program that helps Pitt linguistics students find internships and jobs in health.

Soudi’s research bridges the gap between medicine and the humanities. His Pitt doctoral dissertation investigated the effect of computers on doctor-patient interactions. 

The genesis of the conference was the partnership between Soudi and Judy Chang, conference vice chair and an associate professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology & Reproductive Sciences and the Department of Internal Medicine. She worked with Soudi to explore the impact of computers and electronic medical records on patient-provider communication. Their work compares audio-recorded obstetric visits between pregnant patients and obstetric health care providers obtained before and after implementation of electronic medical records.

“It enhanced our work so much to go to Dr. Soudi and see that a particular pattern that we didn’t have a name for, such as how a provider closes a visit or changes topics, is already well-known in linguistics. Dr. Soudi was able to identify patterns that explained why some of these shifts in topics or attempts to close a visit seemed acceptable to us as observers— and why other interactions made it appear that the provider was not really listening to the patient’s concerns,” said Chang. “That kind of insight gives our work a deeper and broader context. It shows that a health visit is really a human interaction, loaded with emotional and social context.” 

The conference will help highlight the “quiet nature” of the humanities’ contributions to health, said Chang.

“In medical science, the ultimate organism we’re studying is the human,” she said. “In order to do that effectively, we need the humanities.”

The conference is sponsored by the Provost’s Office, UPMC Health Plan, the University Honors College, and the Departments of Linguistics, Family Medicine, and Obstetrics, Gynecology & Reproductive Services.

Additional information and registration are available at