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The UiL OTS Language & Communication research group


Tessa van Charldorp delivers keynote ‘Polar bears, tigers and empathy’ during meeting of the Dutch Health Literacy Alliance

[November 7, 2019]


On November 7th, Tessa van Charldorp talked about how interdisciplinary research and teaching can lead to innovative new ways of thinking in the health domain. Particularly, she talked about what the field of humanities can bring to the field of medical science and what happens when students and scholars from these two different fields learn and work together.

During her keynote, she asked participants to look at a black and white photograph of a polar bear. She asked people to write down the first three words they thought of. The responses were extremely diverse: from polar bear to loneliness and from snow to emptiness. When asked to write a mini-story about the polar bear and share these stories with a neighbor, participants witnessed what the same photograph of a single polar bear can elicit amongst different people. This exercise in perspective-taking is very relevant to people working with patients who have limited health literacy skills. In order to understand anyone else’s perspective, we must be aware of our own perspective and actively ask people for theirs. Such perspective-taking can be learned through interdisciplinary teaching.

At Utrecht University, there are several initiatives in which humanities and medical science scholars come together to share theory, methods and research results to better understand concepts such as shared decision making, health, prevention, and health literacy – to name just a few. In 2020-2021 a new interdisciplinary academic minor program titled Medical Humanities will be available to students and professionals.

Tessa van Charldorp is a member of the Dutch Health Literacy Alliance and is the coordinator for the minor program Medical Humanities.