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Using insights from the past to improve patient health

Open University researchers are delving into the past to help modern medical practitioners understand their patients’ needs.

Key aspects of this research

  • Helping medical students and practitioners to understand patients better
  • Hospice patients given strategies to cope better with pain
  • Patients supported to come to terms with their illness

People in costume

Medical students, midwives and patients are all benefiting from the knowledge of a specialist in the medicine of the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Helen King, Professor in Classical Studies at The Open University (OU), uses insights from the past to help modern medical practitioners better understand their patients’ needs and how they can help patients come to terms with their illnesses.

Her work is part of a growth in ‘narrative medicine’, which emphasises the importance of storytelling in human communication.

Helen King’s contribution draws on her OU research and on her role as Visiting Professor at the Peninsula Medical and Dental School in Truro, where since 2008 she has taught the history of dissection to fourth-year medical students, as part of a curriculum that engages them in art, role play and writing poetry. This approach aims to make medical students more empathetic to patients and aware of the human need to tell stories to make sense of what happens to them.

Helping medical students become better doctors

The same things happen to us as happened to the Greeks and Romans, so the way in which they dealt with these things can be relevant to us even now

Through studying stories people told to explain illness in the past, medical students can understand how important the connections that narrative makes are.

Understanding the important role narrative plays in constructing meaning for the patient helps medical students to become better doctors.

Professor King also works with midwives, whom she introduces to the different attitudes to and practices of midwifery through the centuries.

She has also worked with hospice patients, teaching them about pain relief in the ancient world and the strategies that people in the past used to cope with pain.

'Still no magic pill'

“For many conditions we suffer from there is still no technological solution, no magic pill,” she says. “In our lives the same things happen to us as happen to the Greeks and Romans, so the way in which they dealt with these things can be relevant to us even now.

“I tell patients about the second century AD Greek orator, Aelius Aristides, who saw his illness as a sign that God had singled him out as a special person, which gave him a positive reason for his pain.

“Modern patients are used to negative stories about why they became ill - wrong lifestyle, wrong genes, worked in the wrong industry, etc. The idea of being able to see their situation in a positive way can be a revelation.”

Classical Receptions group

Helen King is a member of the OU’s pioneering Classical Receptions research group. The group explores the ways in which Greek and Roman texts, ideas and material culture have been interpreted, used and reworked by writers, thinkers and artists, particularly in contemporary societies.

Professor Helen King explains more about how insights from the past are helping today's medical practitioners


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