Changing the conversation about health

Healthy Ageing Summer School report

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summer school 2012, college of medicine, university of nottingham,

summerschool600xSarah Stuart a third year medic at Nottingham University attended our 2012 Summer School for students.  This is her write up of the event.

The most positive part of the weekend for me was, cheesy as it sounds, the enthusiasm of my fellow participants, and the lecturers and workshop leaders who had come to speak to us. They were unashamedly idealistic about the role of healthcare professionals which was refreshing and inspiring.

As a medical student it sometimes feels as though other healthcare workers are a potential problem to be negotiated, and medicine is a question of cramming facts into my head, scraping through exams, and eventually (hopefully) patching people up well enough not to get sued. The summer school was a wonderful antidote to this attitude, mainly thanks to the optimism and enthusiasm of my fellow participants.

Here are some key elements from the weekend for me:

Kindness – this was the answer one of the workshop leaders on mental health gave when I asked how a GP could identify and help older people with mental health problems. In this particular case ‘a moment of human connection and kindness’ was the first thing he felt could make a huge difference to them. The importance of social connections more broadly was emphasised by the speaker from Well UK, who agreed that the key part of his organisation’s programmes is the interaction and bonding of participants, the activity being a means to this rather than the end.

The ethnicity workshop speaker also stressed the importance of socialising and exchanging ideas at the day centre he ran. It was inspiring (and topical) to have ‘caring’ put back at the heart of healthcare work.

Challenging assumptions – the most practical lesson I took away from the weekend is that old people (of course!) may well be LGBT, and healthcare workers must be willing to acknowledge this. The speaker’s well chosen facts, about the increased chance of ill health in LGBT older people, their tendency to be ‘camouflaged’, and their fear of being discriminated against have made me aware of the importance of not making assumptions about older peoples’ sexuality. It sounds very obvious but I had literally never thought about it before, so this was a profoundly useful workshop for me.

Several of the lectures, on health economics, and the law challenged some of my conventional assumptions about healthcare by asking questions around whether it is a right, and how resources should be allocated. These lectures were for me, the most challenging and stimulating of the weekend. The whole ethos of the College of Medicine seems to be about challenging health service assumptions from the base upwards, not assuming that systems can’t change or are fine as they are and being prepared to challenge ourselves from the point of view of ‘service, science, healing’.

What is ageing anyway? – the lectures on physiological aspects of ageing such as cognitive health, immune function, muscle ageing, and nutrition were fascinating snippets from experts who valiantly attempted to condense their life’s work into half hour sessions. I don’t feel I got to the bottom of exactly what ageing is, but I certainly got a flavour of key elements and I particularly appreciated the 15 minute scheduled question time after these lectures.

From a legal or social point of view the question of what makes someone old was also explored; again we did not manage to resolve this in our 45 minute sessions!

Beyond healthcare – many of the workshop speakers emphasised the importance of other aspects of life for a good (and healthy) ageing. ‘A positive attitude’ towards retirement, ‘meaningful’ activity, spirituality, social support, creativity and self expression were all discussed. The importance of non healthcare organisations such as Well UK, day centres, and fitness classes was also demonstrated by the speakers. The importance of exercise was reiterated ad nauseam, but rightly so, as it is such a simple and effective ‘treatment’ which seems often to be neglected.

Working together – I can’t stress enough how refreshing it was to work in a group some of whose roles (such as radiography) I didn’t fully understand, and by the end of the weekend to feel that we had worked together comfortably, learned about each others’ roles, and, most importantly, gained confidence for the future that we are all on the same side and can genuinely enjoy working together.

A few aspects of ageing which I would like to have seen more focus on, perhaps in workshops, would be the perspective of an elderly carer (perhaps they are too busy to be able to come to such an event…), and from the older, frailer end of the older person spectrum (again there might be practical difficulties with this). I would also have been curious to find out about the effects of different social circumstances eg. income, on peoples’ experience of old age.

Finally, I thoroughly enjoyed this weekend, I feel more optimistic about the kind of career I can have in medicine, and I have learned a little about healthy ageing from all kinds of points of view – I hope I will be able to reattend next year!