Simulating sensing: learning how to make clinical sense at medical school

Doctors undergo intense work in training their sensory perception, a training that is being reconfigured through the introduction of digital technologies. For centuries, medical students have learned sensory skills of diagnosis through an apprenticeship model, following mentors, and examining patients on hospital wards, in clinics and private homes. Nowadays, for reasons of standardisation, efficiency, safety, shorter hospital stays and fewer home visits, more and more doctors learn clinical skills outside the hospital, often in simulated settings, including digital environments. Dissection, once a formaldehyde-infused rite of passage for medical students, is increasingly being performed on dazzling new virtual screens, where cuts with the scalpel are made with a swipe of a finger. Not all forms of simulation are new and digital however. Models, made of leather and other fabrics, have long been used to teach techniques such as delivering a baby for example, and still have a place in medical schools today.

In this seminar Anna will invite participants to take part in some hands-on teaching exercises used in medical schools to train sensing, using curious objects including oranges, measuring tapes and knitted sweaters. In the process Anna will trace some of the material assemblages used in training sensing in medicine today. The paper draws on the findings of Anna’s ongoing fieldwork in a clinical skills laboratory in Maastricht in the Netherlands, a study which is part of a broader European Research Council funded ethnographic and historical project on the role of digital and other technologies in training doctors’ sensory skills of diagnosis (see  

Anna Harris is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology/Science and Technology Studies at Maastricht University, the Netherlands. Originally from Tasmania, and previously trained as a doctor, she now studies medical practices as a social scientist. Always drawing on ethnographic methodologies, her work concerns issues of learning, sensing (and other bodily practices) and the contemporary/historical role of technologies in medicine. Her current research is funded by the European Research Council.

Date: Friday 14 September
Time: 12:30 – 1:30pm
Venue: RMIT Council Chamber, 124 La Trobe Street, Melbourne (Building 1, Level 2, Room 17)

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