Study Finds Med Students Who Make Time for Art Have More Empathy

Casey Lesser
Jan 30, 2018 9:07PM

Medical students studying J.M.W. Turner’s Dort or Dordrecht: The Dort packet-boat from Rotterdam (1818) at the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven. Photo by Adam Jones, via Flickr.

A new study published today, conducted across five universities in the United States, has confirmed that medical students with greater exposure to the arts and humanities tend to have significantly better empathy, emotional intelligence, and wisdom—and they are less likely to develop symptoms of burnout. The findings could affect not only medical school curricula, but also admissions and recruitment, and professional development among practicing doctors.

This research, published in the Journal of Internal Medicine, comes at a time when it has become more common for medical schools to offer arts and humanities courses—from required workshops to electives and seminars in subjects like writing, painting, dance, and jazz. These programs are designed to foster well-rounded physicians with good observational skills and bedside manner, and to counter the depression and burnout that many in the profession experience.

Since the days of Dr. William Osler, the 19th-century father of modern medicine, many have suggested that the arts and humanities are important to medical professionals, says Dr. Marc Kahn of Tulane University School of Medicine. Kahn is one of 10 co-authors who worked on the study with lead author Dr. Salvatore Mangione of Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University. Prior research has proven that medical students coming from undergraduate majors in arts and humanities perform just as well as their peers who entered school with science degrees, but, Kahn notes, “there’s not been really research to say that if students participate in arts and humanities that there’s a correlation with physician attributes.”

The new study developed out of the need for data to support the push for the arts and humanities in medicine. (Kahn estimates that there is a minority group of naysayers among the medical community, who believe that the existing medical curriculum is too difficult in itself to introduce other subject areas.) Mangione, Kahn, and their colleagues set up a consortium, to be able to draw from a broad, varied group of students and to engage researchers at other institutions. In addition to Tulane and Jefferson, students of Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine, and Cooper Medical School of Rowan University were involved in the study. Kahn notes that among the schools, Jefferson has a strong humanities program, while Tulane has some humanities electives.

The study ultimately collected data from 739 students at the five schools, who were asked to complete a 45-minute online survey. Questions were drawn from established scales used to measure positive qualities of physicians—including wisdom, empathy, tolerance of ambiguity, and visual-spatial skills—as well as negative qualities, like physical fatigue, emotional exhaustion, and cognitive weariness.

“We were able to show a reasonably robust correlation between the amount of time students spend in the arts and their scores on validated assessments of empathy, tolerance of ambiguity, wisdom; and negative correlation with burnout,” Kahn explains. “The incidence of depression amongst practicing physicians is astronomical—the high suicide rate is multifold that of their peers—and even in medical school, we see students burn out, so this correlation, we think, is important.”

The study also showed that exposure to the arts had significant positive outcomes, regardless of whether the student was actively or passively engaged in the activity. In other words, as Kahn notes, the results were roughly the same whether the student played music or enjoyed listening to it.

While the results are preliminary and further research is needed to prove a causational relationship between the arts and attributes that are considered beneficial for physicians, the authors note that the evidence could be relevant to professional development for practicing physicians. “This may be a clue as to some things that we might want to do to prevent burnout,” Kahn offers, emphasizing though, that “that’s an extrapolation” from the current study. In terms of next steps, now that this study is published, the consortium plans to continue to work together, to try to “design a curriculum and study it prospectively amongst medical students.”

The study could also affect future admissions at medical schools. It could, for example, make applicants coming from arts backgrounds more desirable.

“At my institution, we’ve thought that way for a long time,” Kahn says of Tulane. “Last year almost half of the class were non-science majors, and we certainly like students who play musical instruments, write, dance, or sing.”

Casey Lesser
Casey Lesser is Artsy’s Director of Content.