What do you do when you get sick? Most likely you schedule a doctor’s appointment, show up, and spend ten to fifteen minutes with the doctor. The physician quickly scans your chart, combines your narrative of your illness with your medical history and his or her observations so that you can leave with diagnosis and prescription in hand. While few give the seemingly routine process a second thought, the very way in which healthcare providers approach the doctor-patient experience is evolving. There is a growing interest in the medical humanities, a more interdisciplinary study of illness. According to Baylor College of Medicine, the aim of the medical humanities is “understanding the profound effects of illness and disease on patients, health professionals, and the social worlds in which they live and work.”1 Yet medical humanities is somewhat of a catch all term. It encompasses disciplines including literature, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, the fine arts and even “science and technology studies.”1 This nuanced approach to medicine is exactly what Dr. Kirsten Ostherr, one of the developers of Rice University’s medical humanities program, promotes.

Dr. Ostherr uses this interdisciplinary approach to study the intersection of technology and medicine. She has conducted research on historical medical visualizations through media such as art and film and its application to medicine today. Originally a PhD recipient of American Studies and Media Studies at Brown University, Dr. Ostherr’s interest in medicine and media was sparked while working at the Department of Public Health at Oregon Health Sciences University, where researchers were using the humanities as a lens through which they could analyze health data. “I noticed that the epidemiologists there used narrative to make sense of data, and that intrigued me,” she said. This inspired Dr. Ostherr to use her background in media and public health to explore how film and media in general have affected medicine and to predict where the future of medical media lies.

While the integration of medicine and media may seem revolutionary, it is not a new concept. In her book, Medical Visions, Dr. Ostherr says that “We know we have become a patient when we are subjected to a doctor’s clinical gaze,” a gaze that is powerfully humanizing and can “transform subjects into patients.”2 With the integration of technology and medicine, this “gaze” has extended to include the visualizations vital to understanding the patient and decoding disease. Visualizations have been a part of the doctor-patient experience for longer than one might think, from X-rays in 1912 to the electronic medical records used by physicians today.3

In her book, Dr. Ostherr traces and analyzes a series of different types of medical visualizations throughout history. Her research begins with the study of scientific films of the early twentieth century, and their attempt to bridge the gap between scientific knowledge and the general public.2 The use of film in medical education was also significant in the 20th century. These technical films helped facilitate the globalization of health and media in the postwar era. Another form of medical visualizations that emerged with the advent of medicine on television. At the intersection of entertainment and education, medical documentary evolved into “health information programming” in the 1980’s which in turn transitioned into the rise of medical reality television.2 The history of this diverse and expanding media, she says, proves that the use of visualizations in healthcare and our daily lives has made medicine “a visual science.”

One of the main takeaways from Dr. Ostherr’s historical analysis of medical visualizations was the deep-rooted relationship between visualizations and their role in spreading medical knowledge to the average person. While skeptics may argue against this characterization, “this is a broad social change that is taking place,” Dr. Ostherr said, citing new scientific research emerging on human centered design and the use of visual arts in medical training. “It’s the future of medicine,” she said. There is already evidence that such a change is taking place: the method of recording patient information using health records has begun to change. In recent years there has been a movement to adopt electronic health records due to their potential to save the healthcare industry millions of dollars and improve efficiency.4 Yet recent studies show that the current systems in place are not as effective as predicted.5 Online patient portals allow patients to keep up with their health information, view test results and even communicate with their health care providers, but while these portals can involve patients as active participants in their care, they can also be quite technical.6 As a result, there is a push to develop electronic health records with more readily understandable language.

In order to conduct further research in the field including projects such as the development of better, easier to understand electronic health records, Dr. Ostherr co-founded and is the director of the Medical Futures Lab. The lab draws resources from Baylor College of Medicine, University of Texas Health Science Center, and Rice University and its diverse team ranges from humanist scholars to doctors to computer scientists.7 The use of technology in medicine has continued to develop rapidly alongside the increasing demand for personalized, humanizing care. While it seems like there is an inherent conflict between the two, Dr. Ostherr believes medicine needs the “right balance of high tech and high touch” which is what her team at the Medical Futures Lab (MFL) works to find. The MFL team works on projects heavily focused on deconstructing and reconstructing the role of the patient in education and diagnosis.7

The increasingly integrated humanistic and scientific approach to medicine is revolutionizing healthcare. As the Medical Futures Lab explores the relationship between personal care and technology, the world of healthcare is undergoing a broad cultural shift. Early on in their medical education, physicians are being taught the value of incorporating the humanities and social sciences into their training, and that science can only teach one so much about the doctor-patient relationship. For Dr. Ostherr, the question moving forward will be “what is it that is uniquely human about healing?” What are the limitations of technology in healing and what about healing process can be done exclusively by the human body? According to Dr. Ostherr, the histories of visualizations in medicine can serve as a roadmap and an inspiration for the evolution and implementation of new media and technology in transforming the medical subject into the patient.


  1. Baylor University Medical Humanities. http://www.baylor.edu/medical_humanities/ (accessed Nov. 27, 2017).
  2. Ostherr, K. Medical visions: producing the patient through film, television, and imaging technologies; Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2013.
  3. History of Radiography. https://www.nde-ed.org/EducationResources/CommunityCollege/Radiography/Introduction/history.htm (accessed Jan. 2017).
  4. Abelson, R.; Creswell, J. In Second Look, Few Savings From Digital Health Records. New York Times [Online], January 11, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/11/business/electronic-records-systems-have-not-reduced-health-costs-report-says.html (accessed Jan 2017).
  5. Abrams, L. The Future of Medical Records. The Atlantic [Online], January 17, 2013 http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/01/the-future-of-medical-records/267202/ (accessed Jan. 25, 2017).
  6. Rosen, M. D. L. High Tech, High Touch: Why Technology Enhances Patient-Centered Care. Huffington Post [Online], December 13, 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lawrence-rosen-md/health-care-technology_b_2285712.html (accessed Jan 2017).
  7. Medical Futures Lab. http://www.medicalfutureslab.org/ (accessed Dec 2017).