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Southern Cross University to co-host Australia’s first medical humanities conference in Byron Bay


13 July 2006
Giving doctors permission to be creative and to explore their innermost selves is the focus of an upcoming Byron Bay conference.

The conference will encourage creative doctors from all over Australia and the world to discover their unique literary and artistic potential and to 'take heart' as the conference brochure says.

With a focus on the power of creative writing for both doctors and patients, the conference program highlights award-winning authors Janette Turner Hospital, Peter Goldsworthy and Nick Earls as keynote speakers.

It is the first biennial conference of the Association of Medical Humanities (Australia/New Zealand) and is presented by North Coast GP Training in collaboration with Southern Cross University and the University of Sydney.

The conference, Taking Heart: A New Quest For Medical Humanities, runs from July 27 – 30 and will explore the role of the humanities in addressing the needs of health professionals so that they, in turn, can address the health needs of the community.

The conference will explore the insights that the humanities can bring to the task of being a doctor. It will assist health professionals to explore human qualities and motivations in a way that can deepen their understanding of illness and help to explore their personal creative potential.

The conference will attract an audience of health professionals from all disciplines and also humanities' professionals.

Finding the balance between a science-based profession and the human side of health care is a constant struggle for doctors, said Dr Hilton Koppe, senior medical educator with North Coast GP Training and Lennox Head GP.

"There have been times in my work as a GP when I've faced challenging situations and I've felt quite alone in being the prime person responsible for a patient's care," Dr Koppe said.

"At times I have taken those feelings of aloneness home at the end of the day and been almost overwhelmed by them.

"Sometimes, simply taking up the pen and writing about your feelings and your experience can be quite cathartic. Just how good it feels is a bit of a surprise.

"Reading the work of others who are in a similar situation to yourself also helps because you get that sense of connectedness and you think 'oh great, I'm not really alone. What I am doing is the best I can do'.

"It is good to realise there are people out there who know that and who are also dealing with these issues in their daily life."

The Taking Heart conference follows hot on the heels of Southern Cross University's successful research partnership with North Coast GP Training to deliver a series of creative writing courses for doctors earlier this year.

Dr Susan Bradley Smith, Lecturer in Writing at the University and lead researcher on this project, designed and delivered the writing workshops with Dr Koppe. She comments that "any research which explores the interface of humanities and medicine is considered to be pioneering.

"Our work, and the conference, is devoted to examining an expressed need: that those involved in general practice education are dedicated to enhancing both professional practice and doctor wellbeing.

"We believe that reflective practice – such as experienced through creative writing – will meet that need.

"Besides, doctors make fabulous writers. You should read their work."

Course participant Dr Narelle Shadbolt, a lecturer in general practice at Sydney University, said she had been inspired to take part in the course because 'it was something very different'.

"You don't often see courses or conferences for doctors in the area of writing and that interested me," she said.

"I also wanted to attend as my particular area of medical interest is in doctor's personal health care and I intend to do further study in this area.

"I looked forward to hearing doctors' stories about themselves and thought I may be able to develop some skills in the area of writing that would help in my own future research and writing.

"During the course it was fascinating to see doctors get so much out of being able to tell their stories to each other and have them so deeply understood because we could all intimately relate to the experiences being shared.

"Having done the course has reinforced for me that doctors do have important stories to tell, just as their patients do.

"We all talk about burn-out and stress in this occupation and I find that writing is one way to relieve some of that through creative self expression. Reflecting on your work like this is a way for doctors to positively engage with their work and we know that this is one of the best ways to counteract burnout.

"Medicine has its roots in the Arts and general practitioners in particular are skilled at enabling patients to tell their stories even if it's only in the short space of a consultation. I think that's one of the reasons why the story writing came quite easily to the group. There was a lot of hidden talent there."

Many participants' comments from the course evaluations reflected Dr Shadbolt's positive experience.

There was a general view that the program gave doctors 'permission' to write creatively and to tell their stories.

Many participants spoke about the benefits of reflecting upon and writing about vexing events and situations in which they found themselves, of finding new meaning in the complex encounters of daily practice and the rewarding collegial experience of intimate sharing in an open, frank and non-judgemental forum.

The possibilities for creative writing as a vehicle for doctors to 'write their pain' is captured in this comment, written six weeks after the workshop: 'There is relief, release and hope in writing. We can write our raw emotions, we can disclose our fears, our agonies, our guilt and our doubts. We can connect with the past and converse with the future. We can link to the whole spectrum of human experience and gain comfort and support from shared experiences throughout the wider world and different ages. We know that somewhere out there, someone, sometime, will understand.'

"The best health care is delivered by a capable and 'heartened' workforce," said Jill Gordon, president of the Association of Medical Humanities, speaking about the upcoming Taking Heart conference.

"We have invited some highly creative people to share their knowledge and experience in writing about, around, and from a base in medicine. The conference is strategically placed just before the Byron Bay Writers' Festival.

"It is not however limited to writing as a theme and papers on a range of topics in the arts and humanities as they relate to medicine will be presented. There will be a number of workshops and lively discussions, both formal and informal."

Over 30 papers will be presented during the Taking Heart conference. Program themes include:
• The challenges of interdisciplinary teaching and research
• The humanities in medical education
• Work-life balance: the elusive ideal
• Writing for our lives: doctors as writers
• Metaphorically speaking: perspectives and representations of illness
• Art and healing

In addition to high profile keynote speakers – award-winning writer Janette Turner Hospital, the Carolina Distinguished Professor of English at the University of South Carolina, Peter Goldsworthy and Nick Earls (who are both doctors and also award-winning writers) – workshops and presentations will be given by leading health practitioners and academics from the United Kingdom, United States and New Zealand and will draw on the considerable expertise of regional presenters.

Regional presenters include local general practitioners Dr Rob Trigger, Dr Andrew Binns and Dr Trevor Tierney.

Dr James Bradley, Southern Cross University, will speak about the 'Reappearance of the Sick man in Medical Cosmology'.

Professor Colleen Cartwright, Director, Aged Services Learning and Research Collaboration at Southern Cross University will take part in a panel discussion looking at the question: 'Is medical humanities the answer we need?'

Dr Hilton Koppe and Dr Susan Bradley Smith will run 'Write back at you: writing the unspeakable', a master class for doctor writers. Dr Bradley Smith's collection of poems, Marmalade Exile (published by Southern Cross University Press) will be launched at the conference by Janette Turner Hospital. The poems are about the doctor-patient relationship, and how ill health impacts on family life.

Professor Judy Atkinson, Head of Gnibi College of Indigenous Australian Peoples at Southern Cross University will speak on 'Storytelling as healing: the role of narratives in Aboriginal health'.

Dr Bev Taylor, Professor of Nursing at Southern Cross University, will join other health practitioners in sharing insights into how stories can help practitioners find greater meaning in their work.

Andrew Jones, Lecturer, Media and Cultural Studies at Southern Cross University, will run a workshop titled 'Relaxshop: A representation of the medical profession in film and TV'.

Taking Heart: A New Quest for Medical Humanities runs from July 27-30 at Byron at Byron Resort, Byron Bay, NSW, Australia. For further details visit

By Zoe Satherley, Southern Cross University media officer: 6620 3144, 0439 132 095. Photos are available of Drs Hilton Koppe, Narelle Shadbolt and Susan Bradley Smith. Radio and television interviews can be arranged by request.