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To Create Better Doctors, Cultivate Their Creative Side

Two members of a prominent medical school faculty make the case for incorporating arts-related training into the curriculum.
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(Photo: cosma/Shutterstock)

(Photo: cosma/Shutterstock)

Want to train a better generation of physicians? See to it that they develop the sensibility of artists.

That's the argument Dr. Caroline Wellbery and Dr. Rebecca McAteer of the Georgetown University School of Medicine make in an essay just published in the journal Academic Medicine. Utilizing insights from research (as well as their own experience), they propose a curriculum for an eight-week "arts observation seminar" that could provide invaluable new perspectives to aspiring doctors.

They argue that such a program, which would encompass poetry, photography, and descriptive writing, could aid young physicians in three crucial ways: Encouraging them to "see with an open mind," rather than reflexively linking a set of symptoms with a textbook diagnosis; honing their ability to describe their observations with nuance and precision; and teaching them how to effectively articulate their ideas to patients and colleagues.

"The literary and visual arts," they write, "have long-standing and venerable roles in fortifying the lessons of clinical empathy, communication skills, critical thinking, and attention"—crucial qualities that can easily get overlooked in an era of assembly line office visits, where a doctor's attention is often more focused on lab-test data than actual communion with the patient.

Among the components of such a seminar, Wellbery and McAteer include:

  • A photography exercise in which medical students "take pictures documenting important details in their daily routine." With proper supervision, this could help them understand "how personal circumstances dictate what is, and is not, noticed" and "how noticing is integral to scientific accuracy and clinical judgment."
  • "Selected viewings of art with trained art historians," in which medical students "learn context, practice description, and note emotion." This could help to understand and identify "the different cultural and historical lenses through which images are filtered"—an important way to understand the assumptions they bring to their interpretation of a set of symptoms.
  • A "reflective writing exercise," in which medical students, after reading the work of great writers, attempt to emulate their "precision in word choice as the author paints a picture with language."
  • "The study of poetic precision provides an educational bridge to recognizing the importance of detail in the clinical realm, where exactness is critical to providing safe, high-quality medical care," the researchers write. "Reviewing examples of literary precision can help students learn how to avoid crude or sloppy descriptions, and how to analyze observations that lack appropriate nuance."
  • An architectural tour of the hospital, in which pairs of medical students visit such high-traffic areas as the emergency waiting room and cafeteria to "observe sounds and behaviors." This will help them understand "how the built environment determines what medical personnel and patients say and do."

Altogether, Wellbery and McAteer argue, arts training can help enormously in practicing focused attention, cultivating a habit of close observation, and staying aware of one's own biases. You can't properly diagnose what you don't really see, and when it comes to perceptiveness, there's nothing like a physician with a touch of the poet.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.