Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Workshop report: Soviet healthcare in the comparative perspective by Susan Grant

In this month's blog post, Susan Grant reports on the recent 'Soviet healthcare in the comparative perspective' workshop which took place at UCD in May 2014.

Historians of Soviet and medical history met in the UCD Humanities Institute May 29-30 to discuss Soviet healthcare in comparative perspective. Generously supported by the Wellcome Trust, UCD Seed Funding, and the Irish Research Council, this workshop represented an important international gathering of scholars from Ireland, the UK, Canada, and the United States.  The inter-disciplinary nature of the workshop meant that there was much debate and discussion among participants (the programme is available on the CHOMI website here).

Nursing in the Soviet Union

The overall aim of the workshop was to analyse the history of Soviet nursing and healthcare in comparative perspective, and to critically examine issues such as professionalization, gender, and care. The workshop mandate was to evaluate Soviet nursing relative to international nursing and healthcare, and to explore how nursing in the Soviet Union developed in relation to other medical professions. Participants were asked to consider the development of Russian healthcare and to compare the Soviet healthcare system to that of other countries.

Comparative aspects of Soviet healthcare

The workshop was a great success, particularly in facilitating cross-disciplinary discussion about the comparative aspects of Soviet healthcare. Panels focused on three key aspects of Soviet healthcare: professionalization, gender and care. The issue of care and the idea of the ‘virtue script’ (as conceptualised and explained in the work of Prof. Sioban Nelson, University of Toronto) fostered a particularly engaging dialogue about how nursing care is conceived and understood. This fed into discussions of what constitutes a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ nurse, as well as patient perceptions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ nurses.  Nursing care, whether in the Soviet Union or elsewhere, depends on a variety of factors and an individual’s experience of nursing care. Studies of Soviet nursing are limited and probing expectations of care from an international perspective proved very productive in thinking about approaches to Soviet nursing and healthcare practices.

Panel on gender

Papers that focused on gender were particularly helpful in illuminating the difficulties and challenges of dealing with source material such as memoirs, interviews, etc. Prof. Dan Healey, Dr Laura Kelly, and Prof. Christopher Burton shared their experiences of working with memoir literature and the problems this can raise in terms of medical history. This was very informative for everyone, and especially instructive in highlighting the similar experiences of scholars who focus on different periods and countries. Indeed, scholars of medical and nursing history, and also the history of Russia, Ireland, Great Britain, etc., found that they had much in common. Participants specialising in Soviet history were surprised to learn of the liberal aspects of medicine in Ireland at the turn of the century. Cross-disciplinary dialogue here proved fruitful and underlined points of intersection and diversion between Russia and the West.

Transnational healthcare

The comparative dimensions of international healthcare were underscored in the panel featuring Prof. Susan Solomon, Prof. Paul Weindling, and Prof. Anne Marie Rafferty. Papers here focused on the transnational aspects of healthcare, dealing with Soviet cultural diplomacy in the 1920s, continental nurses in the UK  1933-1945, and nursing and decolonization during the second colonial occupation of Malaya, 1946-1955.

Round table on professionalization

The issue of professionalization was discussed in the opening and round table discussions. Scholars of Russian history, including Prof. Donald Filtzer, Prof. Benjamin Zajicek, and Dr Susan Grant presented their papers on professionalisation and practice in Soviet healthcare history.  Discussions about professionalization were elaborated on in the roundtable session, with participants Prof. Susan Solomon, Prof. Sioban Nelson, Prof. Dan Healey, and Prof. Anne Marie Rafferty contributing to a lively debate. It was questioned whether or not theories of professionalisation and histories of the professions are helpful as methods in analyzing both healthcare history and the Soviet case. Findings here were inconclusive, with some scholars acknowledging the merits of professionalisation literature in their work on the Soviet Union or healthcare, and others noting that they found this literature less useful.

The workshop proved that healthcare history continues to be a vibrant field and one that has much value when considering comparative international experiences. We look forward to more discussion of these debates in the future.

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