University of Copenhagen: UCPH gathers medical anthropologists for a conference on chronic conditions

CONFERENCE With close to 500 participants, the Chronic Living conference on 4-6 March will be one of the largest medical anthropological events on record. Conference participants will discuss how people with chronic conditions can have a better everyday life.
Elderly woman in wheelchair
In health sectors around the world, there is a strong focus on how to treat chronic diseases or to prevent the most common lifestyle diseases from developing in the first place.

Less attention has been paid to the difficulties people with chronic diseases and their relatives often face in their everyday lives. Yet hundreds of thousands of people, in Denmark alone, live with chronic conditions.

Chronically ill patients’ opportunities to experience a good quality of life are at the heart of the upcoming international conference ‘Chronic Living – quality, vitality and health in the 21st century’, which will take place online from the 4-6 March. The conference will bring together almost 500 medical anthropologists, social physicians, sociologists and related experts in the field, and will be hosted by the University of Copenhagen.

Through no less than 380 paper presentations and five keynote talks, participants will discuss a wide range of practical, health professional, and political issues associated with chronic disorders.

Medical anthropology is gaining ground
For Ayo Wahlberg, chair of the organising committee and professor at the Department of Anthropology, the great interest in the conference is a testament to the fact that chronic disorders and their social implications are gaining importance within anthropological and social sciences.

There is an urgent need to ask: how do we ensure better quality of life, well-being and health for the many millions who have to deal with chronic illness on a daily basis?

Ayo Wahlberg, chair of the organising committee
And for good reasons, he believes:

“In Denmark, between one third and two thirds of the adult population have one or more chronic conditions, depending on how you estimate the prevalence. Similar patterns are found throughout the world. At the same time, the number of people with chronic conditions is steadily increasing, because we are getting older and more people are getting access to treatment options, which are themselves improving over time. Hence there is an urgent need to ask: how do we ensure better quality of life, well-being and health for the many millions who have to deal with chronic illness on a daily basis?”

This is where medical anthropology has an important role to play with its perspective on the everyday life of people and the many practical and political choices that constitute the conditions of their lives. These insights, which, according to Ayo Wahlberg, often come second to biological and biomedical expertise, are absolutely central.

“We must keep in mind that doctors and nurses meet patients in hospitals and clinics in a very busy environment. Of course, they are keenly aware of the challenges faced by their patients in their daily lives, but for the majority of people living with chronic illnesses, the actual time spent in hospital or at the family doctor is negligible compared to the time they spend at home, in their place of education or at work. This is exactly where anthropologists can contribute with crucial insights. If our goal is to improve their lives, we need to know more about their daily lives,” explains Walberg.

Conference with world-leading researchers
With over 80 sessions, the conference will explore chronic conditions from a broad range of perspectives and in different parts of the world: from discussions about how good care and support can improve the daily lives of chronic patients, to how the chronically ill can best handle their challenges and create a better life for themselves.

We need to keep in mind that lifelong, chronic diseases have become a permanent challenge in all parts of the world, which has a huge impact on how we look at health and our health sectors.

Ayo Wahlberg, chair of the organising committee
Furthermore, Ayo Wahlberg stresses that the conference will uncover how a ‘politics of living’ is currently unfolding in different parts of the world at a time when many countries are struggling with major demographic, epidemiological and social challenges, including large and rising inequality.

“There are still far too many people who die unnecessarily from diseases where we have treatments. At the same time, we need to keep in mind that lifelong, chronic diseases have become a permanent challenge in all parts of the world, which has a huge impact on how we look at health and our health sectors,” says Wahlberg.

“Health care systems are no longer just there to save lives, but increasingly also to improve the quality of life of people living with chronic diseases. Here, hospitals and local governments need to become better at utilising the knowledge that anthropologists, sociologists as well as other non-medical professional groups can offer.”

Focus on societal impact
The Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Copenhagen is co-financing the conference, and for the dean of the faculty, Mikkel Vedby Rasmussen, the support that the conference has garnered demonstrates the strong, international position that medical anthropological research at the university has gained.

“Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen has long been at the absolute top in terms of research. The strong support to the conference confirms this. At the same time, it is another example of how researchers at the Faculty of Social Sciences are focusing on how to find solutions to our common challenges – such as the handling of chronic diseases in Denmark, Europe and the rest of the world,” he says.

Chronic Living is the final conference of the EU-funded research project VITAL (The Vitality of Disease – Quality of Life in the Making). In the project, researchers at the Department of Anthropology in collaboration with international colleagues have studied quality of life among people with dementia, kidney disease, type 1 diabetes, congenital heart defects and increased risk of bowel cancer in South Korea, Austria and Denmark, respectively.

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