Category Archives: Humanities

Angelina Jolie: Teaching Medicine through Literature

mastectomy tatooGuest post by Olivia Banner

I’ve been thinking a lot about Angelina Jolie’s New York Times op-ed (“My Medical Choice”) because I include a section on breast cancer when I teach Literature and Medicine for pre-med students. In her piece, Jolie reveals that she underwent a double mastectomy after testing for the BRCA1 gene; she had reconstruction and implants too.

In my class, we read poet Audre Lorde’s Cancer Journals: she too underwent a double mastectomy but had no follow-up surgeries, and she criticizes the assumption that every woman will immediately want reconstructive work and implants. Lorde recounts a visit by a health care worker, who assumed Lorde would want implants and who encouraged Lorde – for the sake of her emotional heatlh – to get them. Lorde refuses the treatment, and she is very clear that within that encouragement lurks a culture that values women according to their desirability, and that assumes a woman’s emotional health will be influenced by how well she fits into cultural norms for appearance. Lorde’s story often surprises my students: many of them too assume all post-mastectomy women must want implants.

It is especially interesting to hear students respond to the health care worker’s visit, as they come to terms with what this scene reveals: many medical professionals have internalized this way of valuing women, and such encouragement reinforces cultural expectations for bodies, without actually addressing real health concerns (such as the high rate of complications after reconstruction and implant surgeries).

Many people called Jolie’s revelation brave: for some people there was bravery in undergoing the arduous surgeries themselves; for other people, it was brave of a woman whose career depends partly on her breasts to reveal that she’d had them removed. Yet perhaps the even braver choice would have been, like Lorde, to refuse reconstructive surgery and implants. To what extent, I wonder, did Jolie’s physicians encourage her this decision? This may seem a silly question — again, after all, her career has been built on her physical attributes. But it’s an important question for women generally. (A follow-up article in the New York Times stated that in fact many women feel pressured by physicians to get larger implants.

One of the issues I ask students to examine throughout our Literature and Medicine course is whether certain assumptions that we’re socialized into — assumptions regarding norms of appearance and behavior — might make it hard for them, once they’re physicians, to see the alternatives to standard treatments that patients might wish to pursue.

We examine how people make art out of their post-mastectomy bodies, through chest tattooing and other visual works, so that students can consider other ways to conceive what makes a body beautiful. What else should we be looking at?

Millennial Medicine symposium videos are up!

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Marc Triola’s talk featured NYU’s Virtual Anatomy Lab

All of the fabulous talks from our speakers at Millennial Medicine are now up on the Medical Futures Lab website under a new tab called “Videos.” Check them out, let us know what you think, and stay tuned for more as yet unseen content from that event in the weeks and months to come.

New Perspectives on Health Innovation

Guest post by Brian Quinn, Team Director of Pioneer Portfolio at RWJF

Brian Quinn / RWJF

Thank you to Kirsten Ostherr and Bryan Vartabedian for inviting me to be a part of Millennial Medicine last month. As the team director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio, my responsibility is to seek out new ideas that have the potential to transform health and health care. To do so, it’s become increasingly obvious to my team that we need to get out of our comfort zone of the usual conference circuit and look for opportunities to engage with folks we don’t know very well. Millennial Medicine was precisely that kind of opportunity. (If you have suggestions for other events I should attend, I’d love to hear them.)

The thing that really stood out for me about Millennial Medicine was the collaboration it fostered, whether it was across institutions or across disciplines.

One of our core beliefs on the Pioneer team is that there is a tremendous potential for health and health care to be transformed by thinking that transcends traditional siloes and comes to us from other industries and disciplines. More often than not that translates to speaking to or hearing from those who are working in technology. I get it; it makes sense. Because of the times we live in, technological advances are often vehicles for innovation. But technology itself doesn’t equate to innovation.

Millennial Medicine was the first time that I was engaging in a dialogue about health and health care innovation with people working in the humanities.

One of the presentations that resonated for me was from Alexa Miller from Arts Practica. Alexa is an arts education specialist working with physicians in Boston to improve the quality of health care by, in part, better enabling these physicians to engage with their patients through closer observation and deeper understanding of their health issues. And Jay Baruch at Brown University is also — through a humanities lens — educating doctors to see patients differently, to better hear what’s going on in their lives and, as a result, perhaps provide them with better clinical care. OpenNotes — an RWJF grant recipient — opens up a dialogue between physicians and their patients by improving communication from the physician to the patient. What Jay and Alexa talked about flips that and allows that patient perspective to flow back in the opposite direction.

Having attended Millennial Medicine, it’s clear to me that I’d love to hear from more people working in the humanities who could share their insight about issues that folks working in the health sector don’t think about very much.

If we’re truly going to disrupt health and health care, we need to consider these different interdisciplinary perspectives and bring others into the picture.

***Editor’s note: Many thanks to Brian from all of us at the Medical Futures Lab – we loved having you at Millennial Medicine and we look forward to continuing the disruptive conversation!


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