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14th International COMET Conference: A Personal View

Jonathan McFarland

March 2020 | Conference | EALTHY Blog

Mallorca-Moscow based teacher Jonathan McFarland takes a trip to Denmark and the 2016 COMET Conference.

In July I was lucky enough to participate in the 14th COMET conference in Aalborg University, Denmark, and, even though I was only there or a very short time it was an extremely interesting, informative and fun conference. But, before I explain my own personal opinions let me tell you something about the background to the conference; its raison d’être.


Communication, Medicine and Ethics (COMET) evolved in 2003 at Cardiff University (UK) to bring together communication researchers from different disciplinary backgrounds, ranging from healthcare specialities to the human and social sciences. Following the overwhelming success of the first conference, attended by more than 200 participants from 20 countries, and hosted by the Health Communication Research Centre at Cardiff University, COMET has now established itself as an annual interdisciplinary, international event. Grounded in a problem-oriented approach, COMET places special emphasis on the dissemination of high quality research in discourse/communication and practical ethics which is directly relevant to healthcare practitioners. COMET is now closely linked with the journal Communication & Medicine (Equinox), with a view to bringing seminal research to a wider readership. The COMET Society was launched in 2007 to further consolidate the activities related to Communication & Medicine and COMET.

Conference Venue

The conference was held at CREATE, a modern, well-designed building on the Limfjorden Waterfront in Aalborg. CREATE houses the Department of Communication and Psychology, and completely ties in with the feeling of dynamism that the city possesses, with the university at the centre acting as a creative hub. Straightaway after getting off the Copenhagen train my view of the city was positively influenced by a pub called the Mallorca Bar in the main square, and ironically enough I was also quite relieved to feel the fresh, sea breeze, and rain after the summer heat of Moscow. The university was founded in 1974 as a kind of offset against the city’s rapidly declining industrial base and places its focus on interdisciplinary and inter-faculty studies. This innovatory style has led it to being amongst the top fifty universities under fifty years old in the world, and, moreover, a perfect place to hold a COMET Conference.

Conference organisers

The conference was very relaxed but behind this façade a great deal of hard work had been put in by Srikant Sarangi (Director of the Danish Institute of Humanities and Medi-cine), and Bettina Jensen (Secretary of the DIHM), as well as the other members of the Organising Committee to assure a smooth run. For me, the human touch made all the difference.

And what of the content?

Prof Dame Lesley SouthgateAs always at these conferences, it is physically impossible to attend all the presentations and panel sessions that you want, and sometimes I think the only way to solve this problem would be to clone yourself, and maybe in the future this might be quite possible. One useful remedy is Twitter, which means you can keep up, to some extent, with what is happening in other conference rooms. Although this method does have a handicap; it tends to dissipate attention and concentration. That said, I would like to highlight some talks that I attended.

Davina Allen, Professor of Nursing at Cardiff University, gave the second plenary on the invisible contribution of nurses to healthcare quality and safety. Of the panel presentations, I was intrigued by Shameem Rafik-Galea’s work devoted to Communication strategies during history-taking in veterinarian-client-patient consultations. I could imagine dogs and cats and even horses, but hedgehogs were a bit mind-boggling.

Maija Tervola, from the University of Tampere in Finland, gave a fascinating and very topical talk about the language skills of immigrant physicians in Finland, while Chris Tang working at King’s College, London spoke about the role of language and culture in assessing the health literacy of a multi-ethnic population, predominantly Bangladeshi.

There were some very interesting poster presentations from as far away as the Universities of Melbourne, Haifa, and Indianapolis, to name a few. And the topics ranged from ‘Evaluating online news sources during the 2013 polio outbreak in Israel’ to ‘Integrating the existential dimension in general practice: Exploring GP understandings and experiences’ to ‘Quacks and jungle juice: Cancer patients’ views on illness and healthcare through metaphor and slang’. A wide and wonderful array! But for me, the most interesting came from closer to home.

Morten Aagard, a researcher working at Aalborg, who, using the ideas of a local Danish painter, was working on facilitating the treatment of psychiatric patients by enabling them to design their own personal data visualization, in close collaboration with their doctors; an absorbing way of bringing art into medicine.

And for me the icing on the cake was meeting and chatting with Professor Dame Lesley Southgate, Emeritus Professor of Medical Education at St George’s Hospital Medical School, and now working at Maastricht University, who chaired my panel session.

Conference Dinner

But the conference was not all work and toil, and it included what has to be one of the most curious and bizarre conference outings and dinners. In the pouring rain, we were taken to the Forest of Rold ar Rebild National Park about thirty minutes from the city. We were led into the heart of the forest and ‘attacked’ by the infamous Rold Robbers, and taken to a banquet in the centre of the forest to wine and dine under the canopies and practice our axe-throwing and archery skills.


One of the most extraordinary conference dinners that I have ever attended, but who could deny that it was a tremendous way to network! All in all, the conference was a great success, and here is what one of the attendees commented: ‘I am sitting here reflecting on what a great and informative time I had at the conference. It was my first experience and very enjoyable! Thank you for all your hospitality, particularly giving me the opportunity to throw an axe!’

Maybe axe-throwing will overthrow mindfulness as the ideal way to recharge our batteries in 2017? What is sure however, is that the conference gave everybody much food for thought, and if you have the possibility I would most whole-heartedly recommend that you make the effort to get over to Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis to attend the 15th COMET Conference (26-28 June 2017).

There was only one thing I missed out on. Had I flown through Aalborg, I almost definitely would not have been able to follow the advice given at the airport!


Jonathan, with more than 25 years’ experience as an English teacher, has dedicated the last 15 years to EMP. He was recently appointed Head of Academic Writing at Sechenov Medical University, Moscow.