The New Utrecht School

Cross-pollinisation between art, science and healthcare

One can use his philosophical power of thought to set the academic course for a University Medical Centre, while the other applies his narrative talents to educate creatives. And that’s how UMC’s education strategist Stefan van Geelen and HKU lecturer Nirav Christophe can learn from each other. In their project De Nieuwe Utrechtse School (‘the New Utrecht School’) they aspire towards a ‘domain-transcending’ cross-pollination between science and art that can equip 21st century healthcare professionals with the best-possible educational background.
‘We have always been working interdisciplinary’, adds Stefan van Geelen, programme manager for educational strategy at UMC Utrecht. “But a truly future-proof healthcare system and a healthy society requires us to think even more broadly. Nirav is always emphasising that our work must be ‘transdisciplinary’, meaning that cooperation should not only happen between the various healthcare domains, but even between disciplines and partners outside healthcare. Including the non-academic.” This is why De Nieuwe Utrechtse School came into existence. Together with Utrecht University, the platform was founded five years ago to stimulate the interaction between healthcare and wellbeing, the arts, and the sciences. The goal is to educate and prepare the new generation of healthcare professionals.

Strategic accelerator

Van Geelen has been affiliated with UMCU as researcher and philosophy teacher for over twenty years. In his role as programme manager for educational strategy, he is pleased with the introduction of De Nieuwe Utrechtse School as one of the seven accelerators in the development of the UMC. He has no doubt that the arts can serve a key function in the transition from traditional healthcare to a new, more holistic system, based on the perspective of the patient and more shared decision making. “Artists are critical and creative problem solvers that have a lot to teach to us medical professionals”, van Geelen explains. “They always come with the most exciting input during our meetings, because they dare to present a wholly different and often surprising way of thinking.” While science is based on reason, thorough long-term research and evidence-based certainties, the arts operate from a much more intuitive approach. They work through ad-hoc experimentations and a strong imagination. These highly contrasting perspectives don’t have to exclude each other, but can actually reinforce and complement each other. That’s the principle behind this platform.

Dealing with uncertainty

Participants of totally different backgrounds, get together in public dialogues, training programmes and research projects of de Nieuwe Utrechtse School, looking for ways to gain from each other’s insights. For example, one public dialogue in September 2021 was about living with uncertainty. A typical thing where artists are much more comfortable with than medical specialists. “Stefan came with the idea to discuss this with each other”, Nirav Christophe adds. “He is very skilful in such philosophical thought experiments. His mind is always drawing connections between various domains, perceiving both the parallels and the differences from which we can learn. While I can learn from their domain about the long process of meticulous healthcare and building long-term knowledge, they can learn from me about the value of starting a spontaneous endeavour that has no certain outcomes. Something that isn’t bound and limited to protocols.”

Story telling

Another unique educational project is the transdisciplinary workshop series that students initiated: De Nieuwe Verbinding. In October and November 2021, students of medicine and students from various HKU courses came together in six intensive workshop to explore the boundaries of meaningful contact, guided by teachers of both art and healthcare. Both groups discovered here how they can harness the power of all their senses to communicate more deeply in their own practices.

This example is strongly linked to another reoccurring theme within De Nieuwe Utrechtse School: the importance of narratives. Van Geelen: “What I learned about this from Nirav, is that there are so many different ways of storytelling. It doesn’t always have to be in text or even language. Stories can be told through music, dance, film and theatre.” Christophe mentions the Betweterfestival, where two music students of HKU presented their musical narratives of patient experiences from the Psychiatric Stories Database. “It is fascinating to see what music can do with such experiences and emotions. These songs were not meant to serve as therapy for the patients involved, but others can gain a lot of value from such a musical story, because it helps them look at mental health in a different way.”

Children's stories

In continuation of the Betweter Festival project, the platform is currently working on a database of children’s stories. It’s an actual collection, stored in the hall of Wilhelmina Children’s Hospital, where children can read, listen and view the stories of other sick children. They can also share their own personal stories here. “This won’t be some kind of gadget”, Christophe emphasises, “but an instrument to study whether children can actually benefit from each other’s stories and what type works best. From HKU, we study the form, while UMCU and UU focus on the content. In this way, we together work on creating a meaningful experience. Because that’s what we’re aiming to offer to people in the 21st century.