Hassan Hazari is a medical student in the Class of 2020 at Queen’s University
The inclusion of arts and humanities in medical curricula has been a standard part of the student’s learning experience since the 1990s. The arts are credited with nurturing the skills and attitudes necessary for meaningful human interaction and personal development. McMaster University’s “Art of Seeing” program demonstrated that an arts-based curriculum promoted empathic development (Zazulak et al., 2017). The visual arts are a particular area of focus, as studying visual art not only has humanistic value but has also been shown to improve technical skills such as observation. Art-making (distinct from art observation) has been shown to foster humanistic and advocacy-orientated inclinations as well as promote learning in medical students (Cox et al., 2016; Courneya, 2017).
Among the workshops, talks, and meetings at this year’s Canadian Conference on Medical Education (CCME), there was a room that was transformed into an art gallery. The 2018 ‘White Coat Warm HeArt’ (WCWA) exhibition, now in its ninth year (Courneya, 2011), presented a collection of work from 25 artists as well as a digital exhibition for online submissions. The WCWA exhibit provided attendees with a chance to slow down and reflect amidst an otherwise busy conference. This was my first time attending the WCWA exhibit, and the facilitated discussions presented by each artist allowed me to gain an appreciation for the reflection, creativity, and artistic talent demonstrated by my colleagues. I left the exhibition with three reasons why I will be continuing to appreciate and create art in my medical training and long into my career.
“Art is a manifestation of emotion, and emotion speaks a language that all may understand.”
— W. Somerset Maugham
The first reason is that art encourages self-reflection. Reflective practice is already a component of medical education. Medical students are often asked to pause and think about learning experiences: what went well? What can I change for next time? Uniquely, the WCWA artists are invited to submit an abstract and present their art in a Facilitated Art Session where they speak about their art. There were elements of introspection evident in many of their pieces – but rather than reflecting on learning experiences, these insights tackled complex emotional responses. “In her own time,” a piece by University of Toronto medical student Flora Jung, depicted an interaction with a young patient who had reminded the artist of herself. This and other pieces told powerful emotional stories which I believe helped the artists/students/practitioners better understand their own feelings and cope with difficult experiences. Meaningful art — be it writing, poetry, or painting — often has strong emotions that fuel expression. Medicine is a career with no shortage of emotionally-charged situations. Creating and sharing art offers a channel to reflect and grow from those experiences.
“Creativity is intelligence having fun.”
— Albert Einstein
Second, I think one of the things that is easily forgotten in medical school is the importance of enjoying what you’re learning. This can admittedly be difficult after hours of studying, especially in medicine (where there is still a reliance on rote memorization). The artists at the WCWA exhibit were excited about their work and talked about how much they enjoyed the process, as well as how it made learning medical subject matter more stimulating. Rosetta Mazzola, a medical student at the University of British Columbia, created a 3D model of the heart using needle felting and noted that shaping the object herself allowed a better understanding of the anatomy. “The Motivated Brain” was another 3D anatomy model created by Dr. Ashley Crane, a psychiatry resident at Dalhousie University. The audience members enjoyed looking at how the model could be taken apart and were amazed by its anatomical accuracy. This emphasized the enjoyment that one can derive from both creating and viewing art. Art can act as a supplement to medical training — an opportunity to look at topics in a different light and to examine things in a creative manner.
“There is no more difficult art to acquire than the art of observation, and for some men it is quite as difficult to record an observation in brief and plain language.”
— William Osler
It takes a concentrated effort to look at a painting. Your eyes shift and the painting changes. You notice texture, colour, the direction of light, symmetry, and perspective. The exercise of viewing art and noting subtleties and details is something that is not unfamiliar in clinical medicine. Observation is a central aspect of medical decision-making; the ability to perceive contextual details and interpret visual cues from patients is crucial for both the veteran clinician and trainee. However, while we are taught what to look for in most medical curricula, we are not taught how to look for it. My third reason calling for a role of art in my medical career is to hone skills in observation.
The idea is not new by any means. Schools across North America have adopted art observation programs as a part of medical electives. Medical schools have partnered with local art museums, which has led to the development of several distinct approaches for the use of arts in medicine (Braverman, 2011). In general, art education workshops or courses use a guided approach to viewing art and instructors facilitate the interpretation and discussion in a comfortable environment.
Art is a broadly used term, but I like to think of it as a vehicle to express experience, thought, and emotion. And though medicine is an applied science, it has other important facets that consider one’s experience and humanistic aspects of patient care. It is no surprise, then, that medicine is described as a scientific entity, but its practice an art.
Presenting my painting, titled “Holding a Steady Course”, at the WCWA facilitated art session.
Braverman, I. M. (2011). To see or not to see: how visual training can improve observational skills. Clinics in Dermatology, 29(3), 343-346.
Cox, S. M., Brett-MacLean, P., & Courneya, C.A. (2016). “My turbinado sugar”: art-making, well-being and professional identity in medical education. Arts & Health, 8(1), 65-81.
Courneya, C. A. (2017). Heartfelt images: learning cardiac science artistically. Medical Humanities, 44(1), 20-27.
Courneya, C. A. (2011). White Coat Warm Art. Ars Medica, 8, 81-185.
Zazulak, J., Sanaee, M., Frolic, A., Knibb, N., Tesluk, E., Hughes, E., & Grierson, L. E. (2017). The art of medicine: arts-based training in observation and mindfulness for fostering the empathic response in medical residents. Medical Humanities, 43(3), 192-198.
Credit goes to Dr. Carol Ann Courneya, the director of WCWA, and her co-curator, Dr. Michiko Maruyama, for their roles in enthusiastically supporting art and humanities in medical education. The art mentioned here and more can be seen at www.teachingmedicine.ca (click on Art Gallery).