Science & Research

Lecture stresses art’s impact on medicine

By
Senior Staff Writer
Friday, September 21, 2012

The kickoff lecture of the third annual Creative Medicine lecture series was greeted Wednesday night with a packed room of students, doctors, artists and educators. The diverse audience – speckled with teal scrubs, backpacks and tortoise-shell glasses – captured the interdisciplinary appeal of the lecture series, which aims to examine and celebrate the link between medicine and the arts.

In a talk entitled “Museum Rounds: What Art Can Teach Future Doctors,” guest lecturer Alexa Miller, a painter by background, shared her experience working to develop alliances between medical schools and art museums through her company, Arts Practica. She explained how many of the skills gained through viewing art in museums – careful observation, navigating ambiguity and learning to listen – can make medical students better doctors. The lack of these skills results in major costs in terms of misdiagnosis, death and patient dissatisfaction.

“We’re comfortable with the idea that art is a thing of healing – it’s a place of joy and pleasure,” Miller said. “But oftentimes we hesitate to acknowledge that art makes us better thinkers.”

 

A valuable intersection

Collaboration between the fields of medicine and art emerged as the focal point of Miller’s talk. 

“When we think about big issues in health care – like misdiagnosis – it’s not always the most logical next step to call your local arts educator and ask them to weigh in,” she said. But the arts can generate solutions to some of our toughest problems in health care, Miller said. 

Miller explained how medical schools, which often value straightforward knowledge over ambiguous meaning, benefit from association with the art world. Skills such as dealing with ambiguity and learning to listen and observe are often some of the hardest skills for medical schools to teach. When you ask doctors how to learn these skills, they say, “Ah, lots of gray hairs,” Miller said. But observing art can teach these skills in a very effective way.

“There is something extraordinarily hard about coming to terms with uncertainty,” Miller said. “But authentic uncertainty is very much a part of every problem – in science and in life.”

Currently, 50 art museums foster relationships and develop programming with local medical schools, Miller said.

 

An emerging field

Realizing the benefits of the arts in medical education emerged as a school of thought around 15 years ago, Miller said. Initial research at Yale revealed that medical students enrolled in a modest art education program demonstrated greatly increased sensitivity to visual information. Miller’s research at Harvard heralded similar results – medical students who took part in a 10-session museum observation workshop increased their amount of written clinical observation by 38 percent. Students used more evidence to back up their interpretations and spent more time observing. 

“Students learned that the longer you look, the more you see,” Miller said. 

The simple act of looking can define enormous differences in the effectiveness of care. 

“We’re talking about the difference between a care provider who looks and attunes to a patient, and one that does not,” Miller said. “That’s the difference between two tests and 10 tests.” 

Miller finds the 200,000 American deaths per year due to medical mistakes are “not a matter of not knowing, but of not seeing.” 

 

Museum trip

Mary Alice Richter MD’14 said she “really enjoyed” the lecture, but she admitted it can be hard to make time for the arts within the rigid medical school system. 

“The problem is we have to take these medical board tests constantly. It’s really hard to add more class time on material that won’t be tested,” she said. While most of Richter’s time in medical school has been spent on science and clinical learning, she has benefited from a partnership between the Alpert Medical School and the Rhode Island School of Design’s art museum. During her first year, she participated in a workshop at RISD that used museum artwork to teach careful observation. Richter said the museum trip was “some of the most fun” she has had during her medical school career.

Richter’s museum trip constitutes a small part of a broader developing partnership between the Med School and the arts. 

Kevin Liou ’10 MD’14, a former PLME student, graduated with an independent concentration in narrative approaches to medicine. Desperate to incorporate an arts and humanities perspective with the medical curriculum at the Med School, Liou – assisted by a dedicated group of peers and professors – initiated partnerships between the medical school, RISD, and several undergraduate departments at the University.

“I kind of just went with it,” Liou said. So far, the RISD museum, the theater arts and performance studies department, a plastic surgeon and associate dean of biological sciences Marjorie Thompson ’74 PhD’79 P’02 P’07 P’09 P’12 P’14 have hosted workshops on topics such as empathizing with strangers and cellular sculpture. 

Arts workshops are now offered to all first-year students at the Med School, Liao said. The workshops allow students to “step outside the discipline of medicine and explore other ways of thinking.”

“The physician experience doesn’t always fit the textbook,” Liao said. 

 

‘A perfect storm’

Programs such as the Creative Medicine Series and collaborations between the Med School and the arts underscore the University’s recognition that there is much to be learned from putting the artistic mindset next to medial training, said Jay Baruch, assistant professor of emergency medicine and founder of the Creative Medicine Series.

The series was launched during a “perfect storm” three years ago, Baruch said. A grant from the Creative Arts Council, coupled with sponsorship from the Department of emergency medicine and support from the Cogut Center for Humanities make the ser
ies possible.

Baruch’s desire to establish the lecture series stemmed from his own experience as an emergency doctor and fiction writer.

“What I take away from fiction writing is a fascination in people, in character,” he said. “Sometimes in medicine, we are in a rush to reduce people to types, and there isn’t such a natural tendency to realize that everyone – even though their diagnoses are the same – is infinitely more complex.” 

The next lecture, “Artists and Scientists as Partners: Dance, Music and Neuroscience,” will be held Nov. 7 at 5:30 in Pembroke Hall.