Has Your Doctor Taken an Art Class? Why That Could be Important

Medical school training for physicians is all about chemistry, anatomy, and the ‘ologies (biology, physiology, pathology, endocrinology, etc.)…right?

Wrong. There are nearly 70 medical schools in the U.S., as well as in Canada, Australia, and Italy, offering courses in the arts for their students, some of which are part of the mandatory curriculum. The reason? Recent research shows the arts can enhance skills essential to effective and compassionate patient care.

Painting courses may be designed around exercises focused on visual art observation, written assessment, and even attempting to paint in various styles. The instructors, usually doctors themselves, report that this training contributes to developing critical thinking and observational and communication skills, as well as bias awareness and empathy. For example, Dr. Michael Flanagan teaches an “Impressionism and the Art of Communication” seminar to fourth-year medical students at the Penn State College of Medicine. He argues that as a physician, “Our job is to elicit information from our patients. By communicating more effectively and establishing rapport with patients, so they are more comfortable telling you about their symptoms, you are more likely to make the diagnosis and have higher patient satisfaction.” A 2019 study concludes: “Art training in isolation can help teach medical students to become better clinical observers.”

Also at Penn State, Dr. Paul Haidet, professor of medicine, humanities, and public health sciences, teaches a course entitled “Jazz and the Art of Medicine.” Haidet said of the course “Fourth-year medical students learn to use jazz music as a metaphor for improvisational communication with patients….The hardest thing for doctors-in-training to grasp and learn is the ability to connect with the experience of patients.” Jazz music allowed the students to develop new and creative ways to communicate with patients.

As a medical student at Yale, Robert Rock integrated his background in art history to co-develop a workshop called “Making the Invisible Visible (MIV).” According to Rock, “It uses in-depth art observation to challenge and enhance participants’ objectivity in analyzing what they ‘see’ in a painting, and subsequently explore topics of bias, identity, and hierarchies of power in patient-provider interactions.” Dr. Rock also conducted tours of the Yale University Art Gallery with first year medical students and alumni to examine the art with clinical objectivity—the same way physicians examine patients to form a diagnosis. They were challenged to curb their tendency to make quick assumptions, and to consider how their assumptions may be based on biases that persist in society. The MIV course has been incorporated into the mandatory curriculum for all Yale medical students, and Rock is now a family medicine resident at Montefiore Health System, in the Bronx.

These are only a few examples of how the arts are recognized as providing creative and powerful opportunities to enrich and strengthen important skills for future physicians. In our own backyard, the Oregon Health Sciences University course catalog includes “Narrative Medicine” as a training area focused on the ability to listen, absorb, and be moved to action by the stories of illness. Included in elective experience options, students may use visual art or film to consider the experience of illness from multiple perspectives. The intersection of the arts and medicine has a bright future—and one that can greatly benefit patient care.

So, has your doctor taken an art class?

To learn more, read:

Med Schools Requiring Art Classes: www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-med-schools-requiring-art-classes

The Art of Medicine: www.news.psu.edu/story/391687/2016/02/09/academics/art-medicine

Haidet, Colleagues to Study How Arts, Humanities Elevate Medical Education: www.news.psu.edu/story/569365/2019/04/15/music/haidet-colleagues-study-how-arts-humanities-elevate-medical-education

Robert Rock, art, justice, and medicine: www.medicine.yale.edu/news/yale-medicine-magazine/robert-rock-art-justice-and-medicine/

OSHU MD Program Curriculum: www.ohsu.edu/school-of-medicine/md-program/md-program-curriculum

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