If you’ve been enrolled in medical school during the COVID-19 pandemic, chances are you’ve attended your fair share of Zoom lectures and seminars — maybe even a virtual anatomy lab. Long before the advent of camera and video, however, medical education relied on hand-drawn sketches and oil paintings. The famous Gray’s Anatomy textbook, first published in 1858, contained hundreds of meticulous drawings and colored engravings. Laypeople’s fascination with the human body also led many artists to create medically themed works for private collectors. For instance, you’ve probably seen Rembrandt’s 1630s painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, a depiction of a well-known physician teaching his students.
While Dr. Gray’s illustrators strove for factual accuracy, Rembrandt took advantage of the somewhat sensational and taboo nature of human dissection to captivate his viewers. Still, Rembrandt’s approach is tame compared to that taken by Spanish artist Juan Carreño de Miranda in a pair of paintings from 1680 that he titled The Monster.
The subject of The Monster was Eugenia Martínez Vallejo, a six-year-old girl who had been brought to the Spanish royal court to entertain King Charles II and his guests with her “monstrous” appearance. At the time, Eugenia weighed around 154 pounds, or 70 kilos. Along with the few descriptions of her behavior and personality that have survived, her extreme early childhood obesity has led modern experts to argue that she probably suffered from Prader-Willi syndrome. This disorder causes patients to feel constant hunger, which usually leads to overeating and obesity.
If these paintings are any indication, Charles II probably wouldn’t have cared about the girl’s diagnosis even if contemporary medical science had known that the syndrome existed. At barely six years old, Eugenia had been taken from her parents and brought to court purely for the king’s amusement. The paintings Charles commissioned of her further underscore his lack of respect for her bodily autonomy. Clearly, if art could be used as a tool for medical education, it could also be downright cruel.
Fortunately, modern medicine has found a new application for art: instead of being used to document and display patients as curiosities, it’s increasingly being transformed into a clinical tool. Medical schools around the country are introducing art courses designed to improve students’ observational and communication skills. Meanwhile, multiple studies have shown that placing artwork in hospitals can lead to better patient outcomes, and patients themselves are encouraged to interact with art as a way of accelerating the healing process.
Read on to learn how art is making a place for itself in medical schools and hospitals, and what this development means for doctors and patients.
Art in medical school curricula
As any medical student with a non-science background could tell you, there’s a lot more to life than metabolic flowcharts and genetic sequencing. In recent years, several medical schools have expanded on their science-heavy curricula with courses that aim to make their students better carers, not just better healers. Of course, observation and communication skills aren’t something you can learn through Anki. Instead, these institutions are taking advantage of the arts to help their students develop their clinical “soft skills.”
Even among these progressive medical schools, Penn State stands out: it’s had a department of medical humanities since it was founded in 1967, and it still offers electives on the arts to its students today. Throughout the years, other institutions have incorporated artwork into their curricula in a variety of ways, either through elective courses or as a graduation requirement. At Columbia University, for example, preclinical students are able to choose from courses that take them to art museums around New York City. By discussing the works they see with each other in a forum where there are often no right answers, students learn to consider others’ perspectives before assuming their conclusion is the only correct one — a skill that will be crucial during their clinical years.
While the plastic arts naturally lend themselves to practicing observational skills, medical schools across the country are also broadening their programs to include dance, music, and other forms of self-expression. The hope is that students who are more comfortable expressing themselves in a variety of ways will also become more adept at communicating with future patients.
Art in hospitals
If art can help medical students and physicians become better, more empathic communicators, it’s no surprise that art has been shown to be directly beneficial to patients as well. TV shows and period dramas typically portray hospitals as hyper-sterile, whitewashed, and frankly depressing places to spend an illness and recovery. On the contrary, more and more modern hospitals are devoting their resources to bringing fine art into the healthcare setting.
In the U.S., the Cleveland Clinic has led the way in art-based patient care since its founding in 1921. Over the past century, its art collection has swelled to nearly 7000 works, and it continues to find new ways to incorporate this artwork into patient care (its Arts and Medicine Institute is just over a decade old). When selecting works to hang in patient-contact spaces, Cleveland Clinic staff consider whether their choices reflect issues that might be important to the patients who will see them, ranging from deep philosophical questions to pop culture.
Benefits to patient care
Hanging paintings in hospitals doesn’t just give patients something to look at while being ambulated in the hallway: a growing body of evidence suggests that artwork can actually help people to heal. A 2017 study conducted in Denmark found that artwork in patient care rooms encouraged patients to socialize with each other and improved their wellbeing and overall satisfaction with their care. During interviews with the researchers, many patients reported an increased feeling of safety when the artwork was present, even if they weren’t explicitly aware that it had been installed.
Some hospitals are taking unusual steps to increase their patients’ exposure to artwork. In 2018, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts partnered with Canada’s francophone medical association to pilot a program in which doctors could write prescriptions for museum visits. One “prescription” would provide free access to the museum for a patient and up to three friends or relatives. Proponents of this and similar programs hope that they will reduce the socioeconomic gap in art accessibility and make the health benefits of the arts available to all patients.
Science courses are undeniably crucial to becoming an effective physician, but in light of the evidence that continues to emerge, the role of the arts in healthcare will only continue to increase. The earlier during your medical education that you begin to explore everything the arts have to offer, the more benefits you’ll see down the road. The bottom line: reviewing the Krebs cycle for the tenth time may get you some extra points on your next exam, but spending an afternoon at an art gallery or dance studio may provide a less tangible — but perhaps more significant — boost to your clinical abilities.