Engaging with art can address some of medicine’s greatest challenges, including recognizing our common humanity.
A day spent meeting via screens gives credence to the notion that the camera can steal the soul. Indeed, our humanity, our “three-dimensionality,” is quite literally flattened—the screen reduces all interactions to two dimensions. We have all had those days, where even if the meetings were “productive,” we feel less by the end of them.
It couldn’t have been more surprising, then, to feel refreshed and connected after a three-day Zoom session that was our introduction to the Harvard-Macy Art Museum-based Health Professions Education Fellowship. It did certainly help that we had “met” to view art online several times and had a chance to hear each other’s insights and be present, if remotely, to appreciate each other’s perspectives. That connection grew as we looked at artworks together. In the three days we spent in our introductory fellowship session, not only was there connection among us as individuals, we also connected deeply as healthcare professionals. Even while discussing the details of a photograph, the hues of a painting, or the gaze in a portrait, immersed as we were in gorgeous and transformative works of art, thoughts of our patients and colleagues were never far from our mind. Subconsciously or consciously, our group, representative of different professions and specialties in healthcare, also sought connections between these works of art and the care of patients, interactions with colleagues, and education of health professions trainees.
Are we proselytizing for our art-in-medicine sessions by describing the warmth that looking at art together can generate? Yes—the promise of connection through observation and discussion of art is real. In addition, it can make us better physicians. This past year, the American Association of Medical Colleges and the National Academy for Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine both advocated for the integration of the arts and humanities in medical education, given its documented benefits in terms of ability to take the perspective of others, comfort with ambiguity, and improvement in observation skills, among others.
Still, many in the health professions still see such curricula or interventions as in some way extrinsic to their practice, as escape, a hobby, an elective, “touchy-feely” stuff. In the course of some vulnerable discussions during the fellowship, we saw how discussions of artworks are a powerful tool in healthcare and health professions education—a way to level hierarchies, value all healthcare team members, improve safety culture, think outside the box for solutions to thorny dilemmas, and become better at broaching difficult topics with patients and colleagues. Indeed, those three days were a tangible path to seeing art as not just additive to healthcare, but truly integral in healthcare. Art is a crucial way to restoring our three-dimensionality, in both personal and professional lives.