Incorporating the arts into patient care may be a step toward infusing compassion into what can be a dehumanizing healthcare environment.
In Ancient Greece, nature and the arts were fundamental healing the sick, most famously in the so-called Asclepieian temples or sanctuaries (Ἀσκληπιεῖον), which were named after Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine. One of the most famous healing sanctuaries was the temple at Epidaurus in the Peloponnese, whose remains are well-preserved and can be seen to this day. The location was crucial since these places were chosen for their natural beauty, surrounded by forests and running water. Here, suffering was treated holistically, with frequent water and forest bathing, music, and even dream therapies. Thus, the importance of looking at the patient as a whole being, as a person, dates to at least the third century B.C.
In modern times, there has been a growing interest in seeing the patient holistically—looking at the patient not only with a focus on their medical problem, but as a whole person who is suffering. In recent years, there’s been a strong surge in medical humanities, health humanities, and narrative based medicine, to counterbalance the overdependence on the biomedical model of medicine, the technologization of medicine, that is now, more than ever, coming to the fore with genomics, AI, and robotics, et cetera. In the multidisciplinary field of health humanities, the arts are playing an increasingly important role.
In this context, the WHO published a scoping review “What is the evidence on the role of the arts in improving health and well-being.” In this report, it states that, “Arts activities can be considered as complex or multimodal interventions in that they combine multiple different components that are all known to be health promoting. Arts activities can involve aesthetic engagement, involvement of the imagination, sensory activation, evocation of emotion and cognitive stimulation. Depending on its nature, an art activity may involve social interaction, physical activity, engagement with themes of health and interaction with healthcare settings.”
This report isn’t unique. Medical associations and organizations around the world have been promoting and fostering the critical union between health and the arts. In 2020, the AAMC published their own report entitled, “The fundamental role of arts and the humanities in medical education,” and stated, “The primary goal of this longitudinal, cross-continuum initiative is to improve the education, practice, and well-being of physicians through deeper integrative experiences with the arts and humanities.” International initiatives are also bringing medicine and healthcare and the arts together are flourishing, such as The Arts in Medicine Fellowship, founded by the Nigerian artist Kunle Adewele, and the National Organization for Arts in Health. It’s wonderful that many of these initiatives aren’t centered in the Western world, but in developing countries.
What’s heartwarming and bodes well for the future is the creativity that’s thriving among international arts in health and art therapy groups, especially among students. Their enthusiasm, passion, and desire to change is energizing and inspiring. The NPO, which I’m proud to preside The Doctor as a Humanist, along with the University of Pompeu Fabra and the Hospital del Mar, is organizing a conference titled, “Medicine and the Arts: Exploring the healing interactions,” in Barcelona in October 2023. It will include artists, art therapists, filmmakers, healthcare professionals, students, trainees, neuroscientists, philosophers, and ethicists from around the world with the aim of exploring the healing interactions between art and medicine / healthcare.
Students, young professionals, and creatives will be the driving force behind this conference; for the future rests with them. We must support and encourage them, as we have an obligation to foster hope. The Czech poet and politician Vaclav Havel wrote, “Either we have hope within us, or we do not.” We, The Doctor as a Humanist, do have hope within us, and we wish to spread that hope and abide by the words of Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross in, “Your Brain on Art:”
“Art and science together are potent medicine, capable of radically transforming our physical health.”
I see the art and the arts not as supplementary embellishments to healthcare (or the often and misused term soft skills) but as integral to the repairing, restoring, and recovery of the healthcare systems that are being dehumanized around the world, affecting both healthcare professionals and patients. Kintsugi, the 17th century Japanese ceramic technique and philosophy, in which broken pieces of ceramic are not only repaired, but transformed into beautiful pieces of art with their strength coming from the gold that is added to mend the cracks. Let us envisage art and the arts as the gold that is needed in medicine now. Critically.
Author note: Thanks to Dr. Ourania Varsou for reading through the article and giving me invaluable advice.
This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not necessarily represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.