Public Health, Private Illness

Public Health, Private Illness, a two-day interdisciplinary Medical Humanities conference with a particular focus on postgraduate students and early career researchers, rescheduled from its original dates in April, took place entirely online between the 2nd and 4th September. The digital conference, as well as proving more accessible to participants who wouldn’t have been able to attend in person, utilised technology to allow attendees to digest the proceedings in the ways that best suited them: the presentations were available on a YouTube playlist well in advance of the live Zoom Q&A sessions, with a dedicated conference Padlet that functioned as a continuous space for questions and conversation. There was a Padlet, too, for poster presentations: Louise Bell’s, on prostheses and rehabilitation in Scotland post-WWI; Elise Doeschot’s, on weight loss programmes; Andrea Lambell’s, on palliative care and massage therapy; and Joanna Park’s, on discourses of the ‘civilised’ and ‘savage’ woman in nineteenth-century childbirth literature.

With a truly interdisciplinary remit—the call for papers stated that ‘patients, practitioners, policy-makers or more established academics are all welcome’—the conference drew on multiple modes of expertise, with many papers situating personal experience in their methodology. Such interdisciplinarity extended to modes of creative practice, including reading, a short film screening, the premiere of Angela Hughes and Paul Docherty’s heart transplant performance piece, and two writing workshops that drew on material stimuli: Sarah Spence encouraged participants to respond to objects from the Royal College of Surgeons and Physicians Glasgow archives, whilst Amanda Ptolomey’s zine workshop focussed on ‘quaranzines’.

Across the papers and the Q&A sessions, questions of agency, consent, expertise and trust were highlighted: how are relationships between clinicians and patients constructed, and how are their terms violated? What is the place of organisational and state bodies in discourses of public health? How are boundaries between public and private bodies maintained? Jane Hartshorn’s paper on the power imbalances in the medical encounter and its relationship to the patient’s sexual identity thought through these questions in a poetic context; Peter Tuka addressed the diagnosis of ‘schizophrenia’ between modes of identity during the period of ‘Normalisation’ in former Czechoslovakia; Amy Ryder looked at the construction of online spaces of adolescent illness.

There was a focus on reproductive health across multiple panels, beginning with Kristin Hay’s oral history of birth control practices in Scotland after the contraceptive pill was technically available to all. Hay’s attention to the fact that the prescription of the pill marked the first time that medical intervention was routinely requested by and prescribed to otherwise ‘healthy’ patients, established early in the conference a concern with the subjective nature of medical diagnosis and definition that persisted throughout. Panels that centred around narratives of young adult health, the fictional representation of multiple conditions, the relationship between institutional space and private experience, palliative care and the right to die deepened and enriched these central questions. Dr Chisomo Kalinga’s keynote, ‘”No man is an island”: Understanding Indigenous and African perspectives of personal wellbeing within Global Health Studies’, will be given later in the year: a welcome continuation of such a vital and accessible conference.