Taking a philosophical approach to improve healthcare

3 Jun 2016

Dr Charlotte Blease giving her TEDx talk. Photo via YouTube

Philosophy can give healthcare a shot in the arm, according to Inspirefest speaker Dr Charlotte Blease, who encourages a more interdisciplinary approach.

When you go to the doctor, you get an examination, a diagnosis and a prescription. Then hopefully you get better. But could that patient-doctor dynamic be better too? It is a rich area for study and Inspirefest 2016 speaker Dr Charlotte Blease is on the case.

A philosopher of medicine and a cognitive scientist, she looks at how research and practice measure up in healthcare, and says she believes that the medical profession needs to adopt more interdisciplinary approaches to use technology for change.

“I very much view myself as in the [space between] healthcare practice and research into healthcare,” explained Blease, who is currently a Wellcome Trust Non-Clinical Research Fellow at the Centre for Medical Humanities at the University of Leeds and a research affiliate at the Program in Placebo Studies at Harvard Medical School.

“I am trying to bring to bear, almost in quite an elementary way, research that exists in psychology and medical sociology.”

Need for human sciences

Blease argues that biases and other psychological tendencies cause trouble in the ‘art of medicine’, and that we need human sciences in medicine as well as biomedical knowledge – as she outlined in a recent Fulbright TEDx talk.

“In effect, I think medicine is setting doctors up to fail,” said Blease, who describes how even the volume of biomedical knowledge itself poses an issue for clinicians keeping up with the latest medical research.

“What are the cognitive limitations on a doctor trying to diagnose accurately while also talking to their patient in an empathetic way? We know if you talk to someone in a more empathetic way they are more likely to take their medication and tell you what their symptoms are.”

Through her work, Blease has also raised issues around psychotherapy and the ethics of placebos and she has looked at ‘Facebook depression’ through the lens of evolutionary psychology.

Bridging language

Blease argues that a more interdisciplinary approach would benefit medicine and reckons that philosophy can be an important ‘bridging language’ for people with different academic backgrounds and perspectives.

“I think interdisciplinarity is an answer, talking to people and being receptive to other ideas,” she said, noting that medicine will need to change its mindset to harness the benefits of technology that disrupts how healthcare is delivered.

“Patients are using apps and already have more of a demand mentality – they have Googled their symptoms. And while this may cause discomfort for a lot of doctors, we are living in an internet age, so people can look up research.”

Early start for philosophy

Education is one route to paving the way for receptive mindsets, noted Blease. “One answer is people studying philosophy in school,” she said. “Not the history of ideas, but a mindset – it is about instilling or inculcating the curiosity and also being quite intellectually humble and not taking it personally when [someone] asks questions or criticises, and [seeing] the opportunity to change your mind.

“I think having that instilled in us when we are kids, right the way up the curriculum, I think, is really important and I think it would pay dividends in university education.”

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. Join us again from 30 June to 2 July 2016 for fresh perspectives on leadership, innovation and diversity. Book your tickets now.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication