Illness viewed through prism of the arts
A symposium in Cork this weekend will feature medical experts, artists and others who have treated illness in creative ways, writes BRIAN O'CONNELL
An international symposium in University College Cork at the weekend will look at the experience of chronic illness as expressed through the arts and other means.
The Experience of Illness symposium features some of the world’s leading experts in their chosen fields as well as arts practitioners and others who have communicated their illness in a variety of ways. Alongside the symposium, an art exhibition on the same theme runs at the Glucksman Gallery, Cork until next March. While achievements in modern medicine have vastly improved the way we treat many chronic illnesses, communicating and understanding what it feels like to be ill can often be somewhat vague.
One of the symposium speakers is Peter Whorwell, professor of medicine and gastroenterology at the University of Manchester, and a leading expert on irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Whorwell, along with his wife Dr Helen Carruthers, has been working on better ways for patients to communicate symptoms and pain thresholds of their illnesses, particularly in relation to IBS – an illness many patients feel uncomfortable or embarrassed talking about.
Whorwell will spend part of this talk telling attendees at the symposium about IBS, which he estimates affects eight million people in the UK, but only one million of them are ever actually diagnosed. Of those who are medically treated, many can find it a frustrating and unsatisfactory process, and often not enough time is taken to assist in managing the condition.
Whorwell says he takes time with each of his patients to find out what works best for them in managing their illness. He and his wife have also come up with a series of techniques using colours and images, which allows patients to better communicate.
“As I work in gastroenterology, when I ask patients what do their stools look like, they can get embarrassed, so there is a Bristol stool cart where pictures of different stools are shown to the patient and they can point to one,” he explains. “We’ve taken this a step further and Helen and I came up with a series of images related to how patients perceive symptoms and they are very effective.”
The pair also uses a wheel with 36 colours, with both dark and light shades, and they ask patients to point to the colour that best describes their pain. “We found that people who were anxious and depressed picked dark colours, not surprisingly. From that we realised we have the potential here for a rapid screener for anxiety and depression,” Whorwell says.
“Some of the current questions we ask to diagnose depression are quite intrusive, such as ‘have you ever thought about killing yourself?’ which is very difficult to answer.” The only caveat is that such a screening model would have to be validated in different cultures, as red can be a positive colour in China for example. Colours can have different cultural connotations around the world. Whorwell and Carruthers are also currently trying out their model in schools with younger children who can sometimes find it difficult to articulate illness.