This week on PLOS Translational Global Health, Alexandra Abel brings us the final part in the #imaginemed series.
Welcome back to Imagining the Future of Medicine at the Royal Albert Hall.
The final session began promptly as an eager audience clambered to re-take their seats. One man even hopped up on stage in an effort to more speedily access the stage-side stalls seating area! If you’ve been reading from Part 1, you’ll recognise this as our unanticipated stage invasion. Thankfully, hundreds didn’t follow after Dara quipped, “I like the way you climbed up on stage there”. After that tiny bit of excitement, on to session three… Translating the Untranslatable.
Someone very accustomed to being on stage at the Royal Albert Hall is Alison Balsom, who wanted to tell us about the healing power of music.
This is something very dear to me as I have always thought of music this way, and at uni, investigated benefits of learning a musical instrument for older people.
Alison started off with, of course, a beautiful trumpet performance, and then explained that a lot people say music can be medicine, but without much thought as to why this might be.
“As a musician, I feel that music is meditation. It’s self-expression. It’s physical. It’s thrill seeking. And it’s cerebral.” – Alison
Alison went on to show a video made especially for ImagineMed, filmed during her recent trip to Kampala with the fantastic Brass for Africa. This charity engages children from disadvantaged communities and works with them through music on wider issues they are experiencing. Brass for Africa’s most important projects are in two orphanages, The Good Shepherd Home and the Bethlehem Orphanage; and for the children there, the music project is the highlight of their week. The film showed how music had profoundly affected the lives of these children, and Alison’s message was that music can engage, empower, and repair, and has a vital place in science and medicine.
“Some people would argue that you don’t need music like you need food and water, but I would say it’s about flourishing as a human being, not just surviving.” – Alison
Next up was cognitive neuroscientist Tali Sharot, who began by asking the audience how they would talk themselves out of eating an imaginary ‘naughty treat’ placed in front of them. Would they think, ‘that will make me fat’, or would they think, ‘I’ll be healthier if I don’t eat that’. Most of the audience went voted for the fat option, but Tali went on to explain how this isn’t the best way to encourage positive behaviour. Along with our natural optimism bias, another focus of Tali’s research, she has found people are also resistant to warnings. We tend to tell ourselves not to worry about things that might happen, rather than implementing early mitigation measures, and we are naturally more receptive to information we want to hear. We appear to have an inability to learn from bad news, and children, teenagers, and the elderly are least likely to learn from warnings.
When a known camera was installed at a hospital to monitor staff’s practice of hand washing between seeing patients, only 1 in 10 people washed their hands. But when an electronic board was introduced, stating how well the ward were doing, i.e. “hand washing rates on this ward are at 60%, higher than average!” hand-washing rates rose dramatically to 90%. This is because of three principles that drive action to progress: immediate rewards, social incentive, and progress.
Penultimate speaker of the day was palliative care specialist Katherine Sleeman, who had the audience applauding in the first minute as she explained that despite the incredible advances in health and medicine over the last century, global death rates still remain unchanged at 100%!
Katherine explained that the success of modern medicine has resulted in death being viewed as failure, and just 0.1% of the NHS budget is put towards palliative care. The majority of us will live with, and die from, chronic medical conditions, resulting in a slow deterioration of function. She noted that a ‘good death’ may mean different things to different people, but sophisticated hospital care may paradoxically be worsening, not improving, our quality of life… and quality of death. Palliative care can be very individual, finding out a patient’s worst problems and trying to improve them, but it may not be a case of quality versus quantity as studies have shown palliative care helps cancer patients to live longer.
Society needs death as much as it needs new life, and yet it is often so poorly planned for. Katherine’s message was that people find it hard to talk about death, but it is an important conversation to have so we can start ‘saving deaths’ as well as saving lives. I can safely say that Katherine’s talk was one of the most warmly received, and it was fantastic to see such a wonderful reaction to an incredibly important topic generally regarded as morbid or taboo.
“Stop whispering and start talking.” – Katherine
Our final speaker of the day was Bad Science writer Ben Goldacre. I mean someone who writes about bad science, not a bad science writer as one lovely tweeter noted (thanks, George Ward, for pointing out my grammatical ineptitude early on). Ben is actually a rather good science writer and an excellent science speaker, and it was fantastic to have him close the show at ImagineMed.
Ben outlined the need for, and success of, his popular All Trials campaign, which calls for greater clinical transparency and the results of all trials to be published. He explained that 85% of drugs prescribed today came on the market over 10 years ago, and the trial data for these medications needs to be available now so we can be certain we are using evidence-based interventions. Ben showed us 47 slides in 15 minutes, but his message was simple: access to full methods and results matter.
Just before the end of the show, our wonderful director Ali Rezaei Haddad took to the stage to say a few closing words and thank the many people who helped make this event possible. A few years ago, when Ali founded the Avicenna Project, he never thought it would lead to a full day event at the Royal Albert Hall. A children’s cancer lecture series for 50 people at our university led to a general forum on health and medicine for 500 people at the Royal Geographic Society in 2013; and the day after our 2013 event, he picked up the phone and called the Hall (without fear of sounding stupid). Ali’s message was that we must all believe in the power of imagination, or exciting ideas will never take form.
~ That’s all, folks! ~
The event was live streamed by the fabulous Be Inspired Films, and we are extremely happy to say that people from 44 different countries tuned in to watch the live stream.
We also hosted a multilingual live blog on our homepage throughout the day. At one point during the show, our server actually crashed because thousands of people were trying to access the website at once!
Thank you to our multilingual live blogging team, Nadia Ceratto, Christina Wong, and Mahiben Maruthappu, and social media coordinator Reena Wadia. Also to our photographers Alan Liu, Vivana Motta, and Ellie Pinney, and programme artist Conor Farr.
Videos of all of the talks and performances are now available to view on the ImagineMed website.
A massive thank you to all of our speakers and performers. And to our host, Dara, who hopefully collected some interesting anecdotes for his doctor-dominated dinner parties.
Thanks to the team at the Royal Albert Hall, including: Chris Cotton and Jasper Hope; Ed Cobbold and Caroline McNamara for their tireless efforts in the planning of this event; Rick Burin for delightful emails and concurrent expert press exec-ing; Mo Crowe for knowing absolutely everything and keeping us all calm backstage; Jess Silvester for never losing patience with marketing requests; Lord Matt Griffin for first-rate digital content management in the face of tricky web CMS; and Ellen Morgan, who managed to get one of our top online game scores, even higher than the girls who set the questions.
The Royal Albert Hall really is an incredible place. Not only is it a world-renowned performance venue, it is also a charity dedicated to increasing access to the arts and sciences, supporting the cultural life of the country, and inspiring future generations. Officially named the Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Sciences, it has played host to a number of science events featuring leading experts such as Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, even Albert Einstein. And Einstein knew a thing or two about imagination…
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” – Albert Einstein
I hope you enjoyed the #imaginemed series. Thanks for reading, and please do watch the videos when you have the time! Again, you can find them here.
Alexandra Abel is a graduate from Imperial College London and the Royal College of Music. She has a keen interest in both Global Health and Performing Arts. From September, she will be a medical student at Hull York Medical School.
Join her on twitter @alexandraabel