The Medical Media Analyst

Illustrations by Adriana Bellet

As the Gladys Louise Fox Professor of English, Kirsten Ostherr works at the intersection of media, health and technology. She is also the chair of Rice’s English department and the founder and director of the Medical Humanities program and the Medical Futures Lab, a collaborative center bringing together faculty from Rice, Baylor College of Medicine and UT Health to study new ways of understanding medicine.

Under Ostherr’s leadership, enrollment for the program has skyrocketed, with the introductory course expanding from 25 students to 60 this past term. Since joining the department in 2002, Ostherr has worked with countless students, faculty and medical professionals to question the role of technology in health care and the implications of how we visually represent health, illness and disease. 

The Humanities of Health

I do research on health and medical media from around the late 19th century, when film was invented, to the present, where my focus is now on mobile media, the data networks that are associated with them and their related issues. 

How I Got Started 

When I was working as a research assistant at a medical school in Oregon, I was really fascinated by the ways that epidemiologists told stories to make sense of data that they gathered. This brought my attention to the fact that narratives are really important in health and medicine, both in research and in the ways that people make sense of things. So I started wondering, what are the visual dimensions of the ways that we represent contagious disease? And how have they changed over time? 

How do we experience human presence through a screen? What are the strengths of technologically mediated communication in health care? What are the limitations and meaning, and what are the parts of health care that really need human connection?

From X-Rays to “Grey’s Anatomy”

My general focus is understanding how visual media shapes the ways that doctors and patients see and understand health and disease. That includes media created inside of clinical settings, like X-rays and CT scans, as well as media produced outside of clinical settings, like drug ads or TV shows.

Teaching With Television

One of the things we do in my Medicine and Media class is we talk about “Grey’s Anatomy.” A number of years ago, I happened to meet someone who was the director of medical research for the show, and then she also became a writer, screenwriter and producer. I invited her to come speak to the class, and it’s become an annual tradition where she will Skype in and give a presentation on the relationship between accuracy and storytelling on that show. It raises a lot of interesting questions for the class. … So we talk about how to balance entertainment and education, because entertainment media has often been used effectively as a form of health communication, even when it’s totally fictional.

Healing Through a Screen

My research and teaching also involve questioning the use of technology in health care practices, a topic that is particularly relevant right now because of the pandemic. How do we experience human presence through a screen? What are the strengths of technologically mediated communication in health care? What are the limitations and meaning, and what are the parts of health care that really need human connection? These are huge questions that no one has the answer to, but ever since computers became a part of health care, people have been asking what this means for human doctors. 

Why Medical Humanities?

Most of what we teach pre-med and medical students is not about the human dimensions of caring for other people. Medical education often doesn’t take into account the ways that things like race, gender, sexual identity and religion shape not only how we approach care, but also how we even define health and illness. Most of what is traditionally taught is also not about listening, nor making space for hearing parts of a patient’s story that may not be understood purely in terms of diagnosis, but are vital for proper treatment. There are so many dimensions of medicine that just go way beyond the biomedical understanding of disease.

Better Patient Communication

I know that most doctors agree with this too, because anyone who’s practiced medicine knows that there’s a lot more gray than there is black and white. And that means you need to be a critical thinker who can communicate ambiguity in a compassionate and empathetic way that helps patients, but still be honest about uncertainty. It’s also a research-based skill that will, like studying organic chemistry, actually increase their knowledge as doctors. From that perspective, I think it’s hugely important for doctors to come out of training with skills that include medical humanities. 

Solving Human Problems

I teach students about the complexity of health care, but also how to identify problems and then address them. Ultimately, what students get out of this is the sense of how to confront complex problems that may at first seem too difficult to take on. But really importantly, the tools I’m teaching students to use are not engineering tools. These solutions are not a technological fix; rather, it’s actually about using the methods of the humanities to intervene in health problems, based on the realization that many health problems are actually information and communication problems. So it’s a way of using things like understanding the importance of perspective or cultural context or the power of storyboards and literature, for example, as research tools to understand problems and then imagine alternatives and solutions. 

Care and Health Care

When people have some kind of health crisis, trusting their doctor is essential. It can mean the difference of feeling like you had a good outcome, even if the disease is not cured. It’s fundamental for future doctors to be able to recognize the contribution that learning humanistic perspectives will bring to their success as doctors and to their ability to have good outcomes with patients, as well as their satisfaction with their work.