Picture of Barbara SibbaldBarbara Sibbald is associate editor, Humanities, at CMAJ


After ten years, eight annual meetings and countless, long discussions the new Canadian Association of Health Humanities (CAHH) is up and running. According to its constitution, the CAHH aims to “add significant value to the interdisciplinary cultures of medicine, health care and the field of health humanities locally, nationally and internationally.”

On April 27, some 120 registrants at Creating Space VIII, the annual health humanities conference, as well as previous attendees, approved the CAHH’s draft constitution and elected an executive committee. The new president is Dr. Tom Rosenal, co-chair of the Health Humanities Committee at the University of Calgary. “I see great opportunities for the development of our discipline that could lead to ever more interesting contributions to the collection of fields…” Rosenfeld wrote in his nomination statement.

Four nominees stood for vice-president (president-elect) with the vote going to Prof. Sarah de Leeuw, director of the Health Arts Research Centre at the University of Northern British Columbia. The new treasurer is Dr. Ayelet Kuper, scientist and associate director (faculty affairs) at the Wilson Centre for Research in Education in Toronto. Dr. Brett Schrewe, a researcher and consultant general pediatrician with the University of British Columbia was elected to the secretary/communications position.

Creating Space VIII

At this year’s health/medical humanities annual meeting, many of the 53 presenters spoke to the theme of: “fostering critical thinking through the arts and humanities.” Dr. Patrick Croskerry, director of the Critical Thinking Program at Dalhousie University, argued that critical thinking can combat diagnostic error, Canada’s biggest medical-legal concern with a rate of 10-15% in medicine. Three-quarters of these errors are made at the individual level (25% system). There is a problem with how doctors think, said Croskerry, and a need for more adaptive expertise. What does this have to do with the humanities? Among several strategies, Croskerry urged “consilience” or the linking of principles from science and the medical humanities to create an epistemology or knowledge of medicine. Lateral thinking may lead to more flexibility, innovation and creativity in thinking.

Another invited speaker argued that medicine is immature politically (failure to democratize) and aesthetically (intolerance of ambiguity), while the humanities are politically mature. Alan Bleakly, professor of medical education and medical humanities at the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom said the arts can educate for tolerance of ambiguity and leave space for creative thinking, including generating ideas on the fly and reflecting in the moment – rather than after the fact.

Picture of Dr. Wendy Stewart playing the accordion

The plaintive strains of Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lommond — played on accordion by conference organizer Dr. Wendy Stewart — brought a moment’s reflection to conference attendees.

The academic discourse was offset by playful explorations of the arts (with oft times serious aims, such as mitigating burnout). Hoots of laugher emanated from theatre B where a riotous attempt at improvisational theatre was underway. Graphic medicine, ceramic art and poetry and drawing patients were among the many arts explored. “Piano Lessons,” a short film based on Alice Munro’s “Inside of the Lake” was screened.  Break-neck pecha kucha — 20 slides with 20 seconds devoted to each — gave glimpses into the stories behind some patient’s tattoos, the blogging adventure of Sarah Fraser (Sinus Rhythm) and more.

Another session delved into the role of zines (zeens) to challenge assumptions. These small handmade and photocopied booklets, often from patients, provide an entry into an unknown, said Paula Cameron from Dalhousie’s Faculty of Medicine.

Next year’s Creating Space meeting will be April 12 and 13 in Niagara Falls.


Competing interest: Barbara Sibbald was co-chair of the CAHH inaugural nominating committee; that position ended April 27, 2018.