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.”
At many schools, programming around the arts is also happening outside of the classroom. Yale has its Program for Humanities in Medicine, which promotes interaction among the medical school and other schools at the university, while also supporting student-run organizations and events—like Rock’s art tour and a series of drawing sessions started by one of his classmates, Sue Xiao.
Yale med student Nientara Anderson says her involvement in an on-campus interdisciplinary group and other artists initiatives has helped widen her perspective on important issues—perspective 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.”
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.” He points to incidents of unconscious bias, where preconceived notions about things like how a certain disease presents or where an individual lives can negatively affect a doctor’s decision making. “There are a lot of apparent assumptions in Western society that can be extremely problematic and very dangerous when aligned with the power that a physician has in the clinic, operating room, or emergency department,” he adds.
Dr. Taylor notes that at Columbia, students are similarly receptive 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.