Why Med Schools Are Requiring Students to Take Art Classes, and How It Makes Med Students Better Doctors

I have fol­lowed sev­er­al debates recent­ly about the lack of arts and human­i­ties edu­ca­tion in STEM pro­grams. One argu­ment runs thus: sci­en­tists, engi­neers, and pro­gram­mers often move into careers design­ing prod­ucts for human use, with­out hav­ing spent much time learn­ing about oth­er humans. With­out required cours­es, say, in psy­chol­o­gy, phi­los­o­phy, soci­ol­o­gy, lit­er­a­ture, etc., stu­dents can end up unthink­ing­ly repro­duc­ing harm­ful bias­es or over­look­ing seri­ous eth­i­cal prob­lems and social inequities.

Tech­no­log­i­cal mal­prac­tice is bad enough. Med­ical mal­prac­tice can have even more imme­di­ate­ly harm­ful, or fatal, effects. We might take for grant­ed that a doctor’s “bed­side man­ner” is pure­ly a mat­ter of per­son­al­i­ty, but many med­icals schools have decid­ed they need to be more proac­tive when it comes to train­ing future doc­tors in com­pas­sion­ate lis­ten­ing. And some have begun using the arts to fos­ter cre­ative think­ing and empa­thy and to improve doc­tor-patient com­mu­ni­ca­tion. The ver­bal­ly-abu­sive Dr. House aside, the best diag­nos­ti­cians actu­al­ly have sym­pa­thet­ic ears.

As Dr. Michael Flana­gan of Penn State’s Col­lege of Med­i­cine puts it, “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.” From the patient side of things, an accu­rate diag­no­sis can mean more than “sat­is­fac­tion”; it can mean the dif­fer­ence between life and death, long-term suf­fer­ing or rapid recov­ery.

Can impres­sion­ist paint­ing make that dif­fer­ence? Dr. Flana­gan thinks it’s a start. His sem­i­nar “Impres­sion­ism and the Art of Com­mu­ni­ca­tion” asks fourth-year med­ical stu­dents to engage with the work of Vin­cent van Gogh and Claude Mon­et, in exer­cis­es “rang­ing from obser­va­tion and writ­ing activ­i­ties to paint­ing in the style of said artists,” notes Art­sy. “Through the process, they learn to bet­ter com­mu­ni­cate with patients by devel­op­ing insights on sub­jects like men­tal ill­ness and cog­ni­tive bias.” Why not just study these sub­jects in psy­chol­o­gy cours­es?

One answer comes from Penn State asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of art his­to­ry Nan­cy Locke, who presents to Flanagan’s class­es. “Art can make peo­ple see their lives dif­fer­ent­ly,” she says, “Doc­tors will see peo­ple reg­u­lar­ly with cer­tain prob­lems.” And they can begin to schema­tize their patients the way they schema­tize dis­eases and dis­or­ders. “But a paint­ing can con­tin­ue to be chal­leng­ing, and there are always new ques­tions to ask.” Impres­sion­ist paint­ing rep­re­sents only one road, among many oth­ers, to the ambi­gu­i­ties of the human mind.

Anoth­er Penn State pro­fes­sor, Dr. Paul Haidet, direc­tor of med­ical edu­ca­tion research, offered a sem­i­nar on jazz and med­ical com­mu­ni­ca­tions to fourth-year stu­dents in 2014 and 2015. As he men­tions in the video above, Flana­gan him­self took the course. “Just as one jazz musi­cian pro­vides space to anoth­er to impro­vise,” he tells Penn State News, “as physi­cians we need to pro­vide space to our patients to com­mu­ni­cate in their own style. It was a trans­for­ma­tion­al expe­ri­ence, unlike any­thing I ever had in med­ical school myself.” He was inspired there­after to intro­duce his paint­ing course.

One could imag­ine class­es on the Vic­to­ri­an nov­el, mod­ernist poet­ry, or impro­vi­sa­tion­al dance hav­ing sim­i­lar effects. Oth­er med­ical schools have cer­tain­ly agreed. 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,” Art­sy writes, “which is more and more dif­fi­cult today giv­en the per­va­sive­ness of tech­nol­o­gy and media.” Arts pro­grams have also been adopt­ed in the med­ical schools at Yale, Har­vard, and UT Austin.

The prece­dents for incor­po­rat­ing the arts into a sci­ence edu­ca­tion abound—many a famous sci­en­tist has also had a pas­sion for lit­er­a­ture, pho­tog­ra­phy, paint­ing, or music. (Ein­stein, for exam­ple, wouldn’t be part­ed from his vio­lin.) As the arts and sci­ences grew fur­ther apart, for rea­sons hav­ing to do with the struc­ture of high­er edu­ca­tion and the dic­tates of mar­ket economies, it became far less com­mon for sci­en­tists and doc­tors to receive a lib­er­al arts edu­ca­tion. On the oth­er hand, todays lib­er­al arts stu­dents might ben­e­fit from more required STEM cours­es, but that’s a sto­ry for anoth­er day.

via Art­sy

Relat­ed Con­tent:

David Byrne & Neil deGrasse Tyson Explain the Impor­tance of an Arts Edu­ca­tion (and How It Strength­ens Sci­ence & Civ­i­liza­tion)

Your Brain on Art: The Emerg­ing Sci­ence of Neu­roaes­thet­ics Probes What Art Does to Our Brains

The Musi­cal Mind of Albert Ein­stein: Great Physi­cist, Ama­teur Vio­lin­ist and Devo­tee of Mozart

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Susannah says:

    This is a great arti­cle as every­one can relate as we have all seen a doc­tor and unfor­tu­nate­ly for me, some with not the best bed­side man­ner. I do hope that art becomes part of stud­ies for more doc­tors uni­ver­sal­ly as it was so enrich­ing to read all the ben­e­fits you list­ed in the arti­cle. Sad­ly in Aus­tralia, gov­ern­ment fund­ing in uni­ver­si­ty is now drop­ping even more for human­i­ties and arts, mak­ing it more cost­ly. Invest­ing in being a good human being that can lis­ten and com­mu­ni­cate effec­tive­ly with oth­ers is nev­er a waste.

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