Five Questions for… Sarah Collins

Dr Sarah Collins is Senior Lecturer in Communication, Lead for Clinical Communication, Co-Director of the MSc in Medical Humanities, and Lead for Year 3 Patient-Centred Consulting at Manchester Medical School. In today’s contribution to our Meet the MedHumLab Members series, Sarah shares with us her interactive and creative approach to teaching communication to medical students.

Sarah and Patrick

Patrick Birch, medical student, performs a one-man play about homelessness in the Consultation Skills Learning Centre, Manchester Medical School

You are the co-director, with Carsten Timmermann, of the MSc in Medical Humanities. How do you see the role of medical humanities in medical education?

The practice of medicine is founded on the relationship between the patient and doctor. This relationship is formed and played out through the consultation. Trust, a genuine interest in the person and their everyday concerns, and an understanding of the social and medical context of their illness and disease, are key in effective, patient-centred care. To be able to understand and engage with the patient requires scientific knowledge and artistic imagination. Every individual doctor or medical student carries their own unique capacity for entering into the worlds of their patients. These acts of understanding require creative thinking, self-expression, and all the senses. In these respects, medical humanities provides a sounding board for students to appreciate the lives of their patients, and to develop their own capacities for expressing and responding to emotion, acting intuitively and with sensitivity, and learning to look after their patients, their colleagues and themselves.

Dr Sarah Collins

Dr Sarah Collins at the opening of the Consultation Skills Learning Centre with Dame Nancy Rothwell and Professor Doug Corfield

You have designed, with a number of colleagues, the Consultation Skills Learning Centre in Stopford Building, which opened in 2012. Can you explain what makes this facility unique and how it helps students to gain confidence in communicating with patients and medical staff?

We designed the Consultation Skills Learning Centre on a principle of combining open, public areas with private spaces. This reflects the way in which health care is organized and delivered, and allows students to navigate themselves and their simulated or visiting patients through different areas of a clinic. Our design was inspired in part by my research on the geography of communication in head and neck cancer outpatients. This research has also found its way into our teaching.

We turn the Centre into ‘Stopford A&E’, for example: in which spontaneous, dramatic events as well as informal conversations happen in the corridor and waiting room; the students are suddenly called on to answer the phone; while the side rooms provide opportunities to gather clinical information, listen to patients’ stories and carry out physical examinations.

In delivering teaching, the open central areas and the more private consulting rooms allow tutors to share ideas and co-teach during a session while at the same time delivering their own teaching to students in a side room. We have ‘acoustic curtains’ to close off the private space – thick curtains which block out sound (and which are therefore more effective than hospital curtains) – but which can also be opened to provide for all the ‘patients’ and the teaching and learning activities to be open and seen.


Sarah engaged in conversation with students

As the winner of a Teaching Excellence Award in 2012/13, can you tell us a bit more about your approach to teaching communication skills to medical students?

My approach to teaching communication is student-centred, creative (drawing on different theories and concepts and applying these in imaginative and new ways) and multidisciplinary. Although ‘communication skills’ is the standard term used to describe what students need to be able to practise effective communication with their patients, there is of course more to this than ‘skills’ – it is also knowledge, attitude, intuition, reflection. We use the terms ‘consultation’ and ‘patient-centred consulting’ to reflect the broad array of influences and dimensions that all come into play in an interaction between an individual patient and the doctor or medical student.

I make a point of learning all the students’ names and remembering details about their lives. The relationship with students in teaching is essential in order to foster open discussion and critical thinking. I involve the students’ ideas and contributions in our curriculum – for example, students have written dramatic dialogues which we now perform on a regular basis for all students, e.g. ‘In the Waiting Room’ in our session ‘Mental Health Stories’. For ‘Stopford A&E’, I asked final year students to write the session, and they now teach this session each year to the second year students, with support from my clinician colleagues. And I draw on different media – spoken, written, visual, art, photography, music – to set the scene for an individual session or to create an interlude within it for everyone to share thoughts and ideas.


Music, Literature, Art and Medicine: an evening of performances by medical students at the Anthony Burgess Foundation, November 2015

How does your interdisciplinary background in languages and linguistics, communication, social science and education, and creative writing inform your teaching?

I use my interdisciplinary background to create the content and form for every session I design: the combination of disciplines allows us to represent the consultation and the doctor-patient relationship in its multiple and diverse forms. In terms of teaching and learning activities, we incorporate drawing, listening to music, creative writing of dialogue and narrative, ethnographic observation of clinical settings, and discussions about educational methods, into both tutor development and student learning.


Creative approaches to teaching and learning communication: Sarah and colleagues at the International Conference for the European Association of Communication in Healthcare, Heidelberg, September 2016

And finally, how do you relax and unwind away from the office, CSLC, lecture theatre and seminar room?

I love cooking, gardening, writing poetry, wandering around art galleries, walking long distances, going to the cinema, and most of all spending time with my family.

MedHums Creative Portfolio: Amina Kreusch

Next in our Students Reflect on MedHums series, in which we showcase creative portfolios assembled by students on the MSc in Medical Humanities, is Amina Kreusch, whose journal contains a range of fascinating visual and textual material.

Amina Kreusch, Introduction, 2013/14

Amina Kreusch, Introduction, 2013/14

Amina explains in her introduction how the journal became a space for reflection, exploration, discovery and experimentation. It covers historical, cultural and sociological topics – some of a very personal nature. According to Amina, the illness and passing of her grandfather on the one hand and the experience of spending a year in Manchester as an international student on the other made her aware of the fleeting nature of time, and the cycle of life and death more generally – themes that pervade the journal both explicitly and on a more subtle level.

Amina describes the process of creating a journal in the following terms:

Coming from a science-focused degree, assembling a creative portfolio seemed a daunting task at first. But in the course of the first semester looking for scraps of interesting stories and everyday encounters that related to reflecting on medicine and, more broadly, on health and disease, life and death, became a habit I would not want to miss anymore.

My favourite part was putting different sources of material and text types to work. I collected photographs, digital media, and drawings of my own while also experimenting with poems, short prose, and documenting oral history.

The journal contains exhibition and film reviews, poems, reflections on public perceptions of diseases such as diabetes and cancer, photographs, drawings, and more:

Amina Kreusch, Bee and Flower Photograph, 2013/14

Amina Kreusch, Brains, 2013/14

Amina Kreusch, Diabetes






Amina Kreusch, Journal, 2013/14

Amina Kreusch, Journal, 2013/14

Amina reflects on the ways in which putting together a creative portfolio shaped her understanding of the Medical Humanities:

The journal played a significant part in how the MSc helped open up my perception of how thoroughly the medical humanities pervade our work as healthcare professionals as well as personal lives, all the while moving away from a purely medical gaze.

All artwork and images © Amina Kreusch.

MedHums Creative Portfolio: Alice Ryrie

Our new Students Reflect on MedHums series showcases creative portfolios assembled by students on the MSc in Medical Humanities during the academic years 2013/14 and 2014/15. The journals and portfolios were part of the assessment for the semester 1 module Major Themes in Medial Humanities, led by Sarah Collins and Carsten Timmermann.

We begin with Alice Ryrie, whose artwork, journal and comments demonstrate how creative coursework can lead to fascinating new insights and a deeper understanding of themes in Medical Humanities.

Alice Ryrie, Sanguine

Alice Ryrie, Sanguine, 2014/15

Alice Ryrie, Choleric

Alice Ryrie, Choleric, 2014/15

Alice Ryrie, Melancholic

Alice Ryrie, Melancholic, 2014/15

Alice Ryrie, Phlegmatic

Alice Ryrie, Phlegmatic, 2014/15

Alice shared her thoughts on writing a journal for the course:

Being given the opportunity to write a journal was for all of us an exciting, yet slightly daunting task. The journal was a chance to try something a bit different and document thoughts, inspirations and creative ideas with a clear set of aims and framework to focus on.

Some of the ideas I started putting together over Christmas break were articles inspired by newspaper stories or the lives of artists and patients, and others were drawings or pieces of creative writing. At first none of them seemed to fit together, but soon subtle themes began emerging that connected some of the pieces – for example, using metaphors or imagery to create comparisons or humour between medical and non-medical subjects. This really helped to reveal what interested me and went on to inform my dissertation that year.

However, there were challenging parts to creating the journal, too… and not just the mad rush cutting and gluing in things the night before the deadline! In other University assignments I have always felt anonymous: essays are handed in with only a student number marking my identity. But now, I was being assessed not only as myself, but by submitting a piece of work which had grown very personal to me.

This was most obvious on the day we showed each other our work. The six of us sat nervously with our journals, not wanting to be the first to open the cover. However, once we started sharing our ideas, we quickly began to enjoy talking about our journals and appreciating the different styles and themes. I found this day one of the most memorable of our course. We all learned a huge amount from each other, ranging from creative ideas and personal stories to academic papers and book recommendations.

Alice’s journal contains a wide variety of topics, photographs, clippings, reflections, poems, drawings, paintings, quotes, lists, re-writings, collages, illustrations, and analysis. While the examples below are visually compelling in themselves, they are also worth reading in more detail:

Alice Ryrie, Virus, 2014/15

Alice Ryrie, Virus, 2014/15

Alice Ryrie, Louise Bourgeois, Art Therapy and the Stream of Unconsciousness, 2014/15

Alice Ryrie, Louise Bourgeois, Art Therapy and the Stream of Unconsciousness, 2014/15

Alice Ryrie, Edvard Munch - Illness & Art, 2014/15

Alice Ryrie, Edvard Munch – Illness & Art, 2014/15


Alice Ryrie, Facial Symmetry & Health, 2014/15

Alice Ryrie, Homophobia and Blood Donation, 2014/15

Alice Ryrie, Homophobia & Blood Donation, 2014/15

Alice Ryrie, 2014/15

Alice Ryrie, “I smoke for my mental health” – why David Hockney is fighting against anti-smoking campaigns, 2014/15

Alice Ryrie, Public Health Problems, 2014/15

Alice Ryrie, Public Health Problems, 2014/15

Alice Ryrie, Masectomy, Breast Cancer & Narratives, 2014/15

Alice Ryrie, Mastectomy, Breast Cancer & Narratives (1), 2014/15

Alice Ryrie, Mastectomy, Breast Cancer & Narratives (2), 2014/15

Alice Ryrie, Mastectomy, Breast Cancer & Narratives (2), 2014/15

Alice Ryrie, The Nightshade Alkaloids (1), 2014/15

Alice Ryrie, The Nightshade Alkaloids (1), 2014/15

Alice Ryrie, The Nightshade Alkaloids (2), 2014/15

Alice Ryrie, The Nightshade Alkaloids (2), 2014/15

Alice Ryrie, A Day in the Life of a Medical Student..., 2014/15

Alice Ryrie, A day in the life of a medical student…, 2014/15

The journal offered me a way to explore the diversity of medical humanities whilst discovering about my own interests along the way.

All artwork and images © Alice Ryrie.