Dr. Jessica Mudry on the innovative power of reimagining health care
From redesigning surgical tools to putting the human being back into the centre of design and experience
Dr. Jessica Mudry is an Associate Professor and Chair of the School of Professional Communication at The Creative School, Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU). A trained chemist, Dr. Mudry moved to science communication, television production, and research which eventually led her to earn a Ph.D. in health communication. In her current work in the medical humanities, she merges patient experience and medical practices, with arts and humanities-based methodologies. “I have always been interdisciplinary—we have so much to learn from collaborating across specialties,” says Dr. Mudry.
The Creative School at TMU houses 26 media, communication, and design-related programs including journalism, performance, interior design, and film, among others. Renowned for its distinctive and vibrant culture of scholarly research and creative activities, its innovation hubs make up a dynamic ecosystem where faculty and students work with community and industry partners to initiate meaningful change.
As founder and director of the Healthcare User Experience (HUE) Lab, Dr. Mudry works to improve the medical experience for patients and practitioners. Her research in public health communication, health equity, and the medical condition sheds light on the practice of medicine, with the hopes of making it better and more equitable for everyone.
In conversation with Toronto Life, Dr. Mudry discusses what defines the medical humanities, her role as director of the HUE Lab, and how medicine needs to work to make the body more than just an object, and the person more than just a patient.
From your research, what are some of the most pressing issues surrounding health equity in Canada?
One important thing I’ve learned is that we need to think about health equity from a variety of perspectives—it is not just about achieving health from a quantitative standpoint. For a long time, we assumed that universal healthcare meant equal access to healthcare, and that our job was done. But there is an awful lot of inequity in terms of access—for example, access to doctors who are members of the community of patients they serve. It’s important that patients are as comfortable with their doctors as possible. Access to doctors that are like us and who share what it means to be cared for and what it means to heal—that will be a big part in developing truly equitable healthcare.
What have been some of the most rewarding moments throughout your career?
One of my breakthrough moments was when healthcare professionals tell me that they agree with my take on ‘food as medicine’. My work has focused a lot on the history of nutrition and how the field was taken up by doctors, economists and large social and political structures, to turn food into something we count, instead of something we experience and enjoy. Doctors will often share with me that they have very little nutrition training during a four-year medical degree. But because food is such an accessible factor to control when people are healing, “what should I eat?” is a question that patients often ask their doctors. Even in hospitals, food plays a large role in a patient’s experience. Often the cultural and social aspects of meals are ignored despite the fact that they can be a large part of the healing process. It shows the separation of how the body as an object and the body as a subject needs to be thought of in a more intertwined way. We talk about the body in very mechanistic ways, and that can sometimes be to the detriment of the patient.
How does TMU’s partnership in the ‘Creativity and Critical Care’ initiative align with the HUE Lab’s ethos of bringing innovation to healthcare?
So much healthcare right now involves a fair amount of “McGyvering.” Doctors and patients do things to fix an acute problem with the only available solutions they have on hand. It’s “satisficing”. Solving the problem adequately but not necessarily optimally. We saw it during the pandemic on one level, with The Creative School’s Design + Technology LAB at the School partnering with local hospitals to develop personal protective equipment (PPE). What I’d like to do with the HUE Lab is allow doctors to prototype new methods and tools that can improve the way things they practice—new tools, garments, instruments—we should be able to customize these things—every doctor and every patient is different.
An example is our rethinking of the post-mastectomy garment. I say ‘garment’ instead of ‘bra’ because it wasn’t until we stopped using the word “bra” that we started to get creative and we looked at the project in a whole new way. I’m not a surgical oncologist or a fashion student, but what I do is remove constraints in a project: linguistic or structural, or cultural, and make space for people to think more innovatively.
How does this approach to healthcare benefit both practitioners and patients?
I have yet to meet a doctor who doesn’t care deeply about their patients. So when we’re able to get creative with a post-mastectomy garment for example, and it results in a patient with less pain, more comfort, and fewer infections, everyone benefits. It enables our doctors to practice better new ways and directly serves the patients’ needs. It’s patient-centred care at its best.
How has The Creative School fostered an environment for the medical humanities to thrive?
As an interdisciplinary scholar, I see only good things when you combine perspectives that are not necessarily in line with traditional expectations. In order to keep the human being at the centre of healthcare, we need to go to arts and humanities-based research in order to solve some very complex problems. I think it comes back to enfranchising the people who are doing the medicine and receiving the medicine, giving them a voice, and allowing humanities scholars to look at that interface between science and human. When we do this, we can understand better understand the work that needs to be done. This raises questions not only about data, but about things like pain, experience, the healing environment, and more.
What role does interdisciplinary collaboration play in your vision for the HUE Lab?
Interfaculty work at TMU allows for really unique work to occur—like in The Creative School’s Design + Technology LAB. If we believed, for example, that all of the medical tools currently available were all that we need to practice medicine in the best way possible, well, that would be an incredibly limited point of view. For me, the HUE Lab is an ideal place where TMU’s new School of Medicine and The Creative School can work with medical students moving forward. Medical students who can approach their discipline with creative problem-solving skills and who understand the practice of medicine as human-centred can be fundamental in changing the patient’s experience with the medical change feel empowered and confident that they’re staying true to the “do no harm” at their best.