Simulating Touch: Learning Tactility through Analogy in Medical Education

Anna Harris

Doctors, like artists, work intensely to train their sensory perception. This training is being reconfigured through the introduction of digital technologies. For centuries, medical students have learned sensory skills important to diagnosis through the apprenticeship model, following mentors, and examining patients in hospital wards, clinics, and private homes. For reasons of standardization, 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 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, and still have a place in medical schools today. In this presentation I will invite the audience to take part in some hands-on teaching exercises used in medical schools to train the sense of touch, using curious objects such as oranges, knitted sweaters, socks, and water-filled gloves, as well as some digital applications. In the process I will trace some of the material assemblages used in training tactility in medicine today, and how clinical touch gets reconsidered in these various analogous forms. The underlying paper draws on the findings of my ongoing fieldwork in a clinical skills laboratory in Maastricht, a study that is part of a broader ERC-funded ethnographic and historical project on the role of digital and other technologies in training doctors’ sensory skills of diagnosis.

Anna Harris is an anthropologist of medical and other craft practices. She is currently conducting a comparative ethnographic and historical study of the materiality of medical education. Harris is Assistant Professor in the Technology and Society Studies Department, Maastricht University.