Using Art in Medicine: How medical schools are including art classes.

Posted by Jhan Dudley on

“What the heck does Impressionist art have to do with medical communication?” It’s a question that Dr. Michael Flanagan often gets after telling people about “Impressionism and the Art of Communication,”. The seminar he teaches to fourth-year medical students at the Penn State College of Medicine. In the course, students complete exercises inspired by 19th-century painters like Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet. Ranging from observation and writing activities to painting in the style of the artist. 

Medical schools and the use of art

More and more, medical schools in the U.S. are investing in curriculum and programming around the arts. Using art in medicine is becoming more popular. As a matter of fact, professors argue that engaging in the arts during medical school, is valuable in developing essential skills that doctors need. Like critical thinking and observational and communication skills. As well as bias awareness and empathy

Some medical schools have been incorporating the arts into their curriculum for decades. Penn State, for example, was the first medical school in the U.S. to develop its own department of medical humanities. Launching the school in 1967. And many schools have long required students to take reflective writing courses or interdisciplinary classes. Classes that tap into social sciences or the arts as part of graduation requirements. As they see the importance of art in medicine. This coursework is meant to address a wide swathe of real-world scenarios, from medical decision-making to ethics.

Teaching medical students to ask the right questions

“It’s a richer experience than just, ‘Check, I know how to observe now,’” says Dr. Taylor. Regarding the courses Columbia offers, where students visit museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She notes that by verbally reacting to the art they see, and developing hypotheses around factors like what the artist was thinking or why they used a certain shade of red, students prepare for future scenarios with patients and colleagues that may be uncomfortable.

These classes, which are most often led by museum educators, encourage students to ask questions and to consider the perspectives of others. One of the oldest courses of this type was begun at Yale in the late 1990s by dermatology professor Dr. Irwin Braverman and curator Linda Friedlaender. They created a class that takes place at the Yale Center for British Art.

Art helps medical students maintain empathy and compassion

Medical students at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, for are required to take humanities seminars in their first year.  Which range from dance to poetry.  Harvard Medical School and the University of Texas at Austin’s Dell Medical School, have developed their own arts and humanities programs. "It’s not just a nice idea to incorporate humanities into medical schools to make the education more interesting,”

Dr. Flanagan says of such programs. “It’s protecting and maintaining students’ empathy so that by the time they go off to practice medicine, they’re still empathetic individuals.” He notes that while medical students traditionally enter their first year with very high levels of empathy. After three years, research has shown, the exposure to content around death and suffering can cause those levels to plummet. Engagement in the humanities can rectify this problem. Dr. Delphine Taylor, associate professor of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, emphasizes that arts-focused activities are important in training future doctors to be present and aware

Stepping away from technology

Which is more and more difficult today given the pervasiveness of technology and media. One of the more popular programs was adopted at schools including Yale, Harvard, and UT Austin. It involves students meeting at art museums to describe and discuss artworks.  At the most basic level, these exercises in close observation help to improve diagnostic skills. Priming students to identify visual symptoms of illness or injury in patients, and (hopefully) preventing them from making misguided assumptions. But it’s also about delving beneath face value.

In addition, students also create art

After taking that course in 2013, Yale med student Robert Rock, took the initiative to develop his own art tour of the Yale Center for British Art. “The point is to create a critical consciousness,” Rock explains. “I think in the medical culture there’s a deference to authority that holds people back from asking important questions about things that can mean life or death.” He notes that the museum is neutral territory where students, who often don’t have much experience with art, can feel comfortable voicing opinions or asking questions. His tour, called “Making the Invisible Visible,” has been incorporated into the Yale curriculum.

Beyond looking at and discussing art, students are also making it. At Columbia, students can take a comics course taught by Dr. Benjamin Schwartz, assistant professor of medicine and chief creative officer at Columbia’s Department of Surgery. Is also a contributing cartoonist to The New Yorker. In his classes, students learn to create their own comics and, in the process, gain insights into the different vantages from which to see and understand real-life situations.

Perhaps most importantly, they learn to practice effective story telling. "When you become a doctor, you train really hard to learn another vocabulary and it really is almost like its own language,” says Dr. Schwartz. “You become so well-versed in it that you can forget that you’re speaking it and words that are common to you might be confusing jargon to the person you’re speaking with.” Making comics, he explains, can help to prevent these types of scenarios, and engender mindfulness.

Learning to ask questions

Efforts to better communicate with patients also drive much of Dr. Flanagan’s Impressionism course. One particularly original exercise sees students partner up to paint. One student is given a postcard with a famous Impressionist painting on it. While the other student, who cannot see the card, stands at a canvas with a paintbrush in hand. And must ask their partner questions about the painting in order to reproduce it. “The painter becomes like the physician who’s taking a history and trying to get information from the patient,” Dr. Flanagan says. “They experience firsthand how much easier it is to gain information when you ask open-ended questions when you stop and let that patient tell their story.”

Learning critical thinking

Yale med student Nientara Anderson sees great value in art courses. She says her involvement in an on-campus interdisciplinary group has helped widen her perspective on important issues. And that will ultimately make her a better doctor. “ I noticed in my first year of medical school that we were talking about things like race, mental health, sexuality, and we weren’t really reaching outside of medicine and asking people who really study these things,” Anderson says. “I see art as a way, especially art in medicine, to bring in outside expertise.” In the hope that if needed doctors will do the same in their practice.

Likewise, Rock agrees, stressing that a sense of “criticality, more than anything, is what I would hope that the arts and the humanities bring to the medical profession.”

Dr. Taylor agrees adding students at Columbia, are also open to taking humanities courses. “The application to medicine is very obvious, we don’t have to tell our medical students why they’re doing this,” she says. And visual art, it seems, has a special role to play. Dr. Schwartz suggests that visual art is somewhat unique in what it can offer to medical professionals. “For me, the greatest asset with visual art in particular, when it comes to teaching medical students, is just that it gently takes us out of our comfort zone,” he says. “It gives us a great opportunity to have these stop and think moments.” Doctor or not, we could all stand to have more moments to stop and think. I hope that looking at my work you see Vancouver in a whole new way.

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