Assistant Professor Julie Chen

Assistant prof. Julie Chen wants HKU med students to read novels. Here’s why

August 21, 2017 / by / 0 Comment

Few undergraduate degrees are more specialised in scope than Medicine, but some doctors, like assistant professor Julie Chen, have found a way of bringing in the things they love.

The little room is cluttered, the sky outside grey, but behind the desk, in a black tailored suit showing just a glimpse of white ruffled sleeve, sits assistant professor Julie Chen, emanating the warmth and professionalism she hopes to inspire in her students.

Winner of the 2016 HKU Outstanding Teaching Award, Dr. Chen runs the Medical Humanities course — a combination of medical studies and the humanities — at the Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine. This interdisciplinary course seems like a natural extension of her curious, charismatic personality, and her keen interest in the humanities goes way back to her childhood.

When she was 18, and on the brink of applying to university, Dr. Chen was a fence-sitter: “In my heart of hearts, if there were no other considerations, I really wanted to be a journalist,” she recalls, but practical concerns won out. She would eventually become a Chemistry student at Dalhousie University in Canada, before turning to pursue medicine as a postgraduate.

Choosing medicine was a compromise: like many of the students who now sit before her in admission interviews, she “[liked] the science and the challenge,” and its potential for self-sufficiency, independence and learning about people also appealed.

Dr. Chen admits that she didn’t like being in a hospital, preferring work in the community over the “artificial” environment of the wards. “I like to interact with people, more or less in their usual settings, seeing more or less who they are,” she says. Thus she chose family medicine for residency training, partly influenced by the positive experience of a live-in placement with a rural family physician during medical school.

This allowed her to participate in house calls and visits to native reserves: “You see how much a member of the community a family doctor is, and if their work is it really as interesting as they say in terms of diversity, and I think it really is,” Dr. Chen says.

Soon after, Dr. Chen began private practice in Canada as a family medicine practitioner. An opportunity arose for her husband to come to Hong Kong, but she, “the conservative, liking stability person that I am,” — pregnant, newly settled — “said no.”  They came nevertheless, fully expecting to return after two years.

She has now been in Hong Kong over a decade. Since her beginnings as a Family Medicine tutor on a volunteer basis, Dr. Chen has evolved from an “antsy stay at home mom” to assistant professor here at HKU’s Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine.

Medical Humanities an “unconventional kind of learning”

Years after pragmatism brought her away from journalism, Dr. Chen has found a way to bring her love of storytelling and conversation to the medical faculty. She joined the team of the late professor L.C. Chan, a celebrated pioneer of medical education, whose passionate advocacy of “bringing an unconventional kind of learning to a very traditional kind of medical curriculum” led to the establishment of the Medical Humanities program at HKU five years ago.

Medical Humanities is an “evidence-based” course taught in parallel with what is regarded as conventional medicine: anatomy, physiology, pathology, and so on. However, instead of basic science, students are encouraged to engage with the humanistic side of medicine through sharing sessions and workshops in art, music, theatre and meditation.

As a student who has taken Medical Humanities, I have, in recent years, discussed the ethical dilemmas in Johnnie To crime thriller Three, and listened to Dr. Thomas Tsang, former Controller of Centre of Health Protection, explain the conflicts inherent in health policy making. I’ve also painted “symbols of peace” — comforting pictures of pyjamas and freshly baked goods.

To an outsider, the relevance of these activities may be baffling. As Dr. Chen explains it, the course was developed based on the feedback of experienced doctors, who told the team what they wished had been emphasized and taught during their own medical education. It boiled down to a better understanding of the human condition, as well as critical thinking.

“I don’t think we can transform people into better doctors” she says. “I don’t think [Medical Humanities] can make people more empathic, or turn you into something you are not.” Instead, the course aims to recreate experiences that students may never have to encounter personally, exposing students to different “experiences of doctoring” by living “vicariously” through stories, drama and film.

As for critical thinking, Dr. Chen hopes that students learn to accept that “there is no right, no wrong,” and begin to analyse the world from different perspectives. “[Medicine is], no matter what you might think, still very imprecise …and however much we want there to be a right answer, there often is not, and engagement with medical humanities can help us to recognize and resolve [this].”

The Medical Humanities program is now about to see its first batch of graduates, but the work is far from done. Dr. Chen believes that student feedback, whether positive or negative, is “constructive” in improving the curriculum.

As a new semester approaches, a fresh batch of MBBS students will soon find themselves crowding into a lecture for Medical Humanities. I asked whether Dr. Chen had advice for them, something she wished she had been told in college. She was pensive for a moment.

“I guess, some of the things you think are important in college really aren’t,” she says finally, recalling an exam she failed. “Ultimately what you might perceive as a failure does not matter in the long run because life is bigger than those incidents… and the bottom line is that you learned something from it.”

More Q&A with Julie Chen

  • Book recommendation: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
  • Recent reads: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, and a biography of opera singer, Maria Callas
  • Favourite outfit: A wedding dress that still fits



4th Year Medical Student