How to Create a Humanistic Conference

Be the Changeby Helen Riess, MD

The Gold Foundation’s recent research symposium, “Mapping the Landscape, Journeying Together” truly exemplified the wisdom “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” This conference drew an international cohort of 26 research teams that presented literature reviews sponsored and funded by the Foundation.  Each study investigated the research on a different facet of humanistic care; topics ranged from integrating the humanities into medicine to reducing physician burnout.

The design of this conference transformed my expectations of what a medical education research symposium could be by imbuing the principles of humanism into every aspect of the event.  

The instructions to “Bring your yoga mat” were the first sign that this conference would be different. Rather than starting the day in a dimly lit room with hours of PowerPoint slides ahead, we began with optional mindfulness or yoga sessions, or a poem read aloud, preparing us to become present and open.

The organizers wanted to give attendees a chance to participate in four experiences: speaking, listening, reflecting, and taking action.  Each research team was asked to give a dynamic 3-minute synopsis of their work. The planners suggested we tell a story about what pulled us to research our particular topic, then briefly present our methods and findings. We were allowed only one (actually useful) PowerPoint slide.  This new format inspired creative use of storytelling, drama, and musical themes, interwoven with humor, warmth and a sense of urgency.

The conference leaders encouraged active listening by making time for breaks to digest the new research findings. Afterwards we came back together to reflect on how our new knowledge could affect medical education and patient care. Additionally, a half day was devoted to a “call for action.” For me, this was the most powerful part of the event. Instead of passive learning where what we do post-conference is left completely up to chance, this call for action was part of a new accountability to disseminate our findings or to consider next steps to further advance the research that had been done.

This conference was a far cry from the long, didactic morning sessions followed by dismissal for  “lunch on your own” that typifies most medical conferences. Nurturing the body, mind and spirit are tenets of humanism; this conference demonstrated how to do all three.  We were served delicious, healthy, and beautiful food and novel techniques were introduced to keep us engaged with each other.

The “World Cafe” exercise conjured up the spirit of adventure that comes with travel. Each round table had a “host” who took notes during a short discussion. After 12 minutes everyone else at the table rotated to other “hosts” at other tables to expand the discussion. Finally, the hosts reported on the process and deepening of the discussion. This was one of several novel techniques that encouraged participation, dialogue, and collegial interaction, fostering a wide exchange of perspectives.

This conference gathered a community of scholars to ponder the health crises and costs we face today. We were challenged to do research with rigorous methodologies, to work collectively, and to share solutions that will inform even the most vexing health problems we face today.  By valuing the humanity of each patient and family we serve, we reach the highest goals of our collective professions. By being treated humanely at this conference, we leave with a model of what this looks, sounds, feels, and tastes like and take this back to our research, clinical, and personal communities.

Helen RiessHelen Riess, MD. is the Chief Scientist at Empathetics, Director of the Empathy and Relational Science Program at Massachusetts General Hospital and an Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Riess was awarded the 2013 Partners Healthcare Medical Education Research Award and has presented her work nationally and internationally, recently giving a TEDx talk titled, “The Power of Empathy.”  You can follow her on Twitter at @HelenRiessMD.