There is an expectation for healthcare professionals to possess and demonstrate soft skills, like empathy and cultural knowledge, despite the fact that these skills are hardly taught in traditional medical school curriculum. 

As a result, many medical school programs have moved towards engaging students with the creative arts to try and teach soft skills of the profession.

Applying art interpretations to the clinical environment

Medical students of the University of Melbourne visit the Ian Potter Museum of Art several times throughout their medical training. Here, they are encouraged to actively participate in discussions about art displays and reflect interpretations back to the healthcare environment. Students are asked to describe aspects of art as objectively as possible, including its colour, content and style.

As one student shared, “I left feeling more capable of engaging with the emotional narrative of my patients and being more open to their perspective.”

Sharing personal interpretations and understanding the interpretations of others is very helpful to stamp out the belief that there is a right and wrong answer to everything – something ingrained in medical students early on in their training.

“There was no right or wrong way of deciphering the art piece and for once that was freeing,” said another student. The discussions do not aim to reach a consensus on what the artwork really meant; rather it is to explore multiple alternative interpretations, reflecting the way differential diagnoses are made in clinical practice.

Furthermore, the sessions require immense attention to all dimensions of an artwork to uncover the stories behind it, which equates to doctors looking at patients beyond their physical symptoms to understand their health stories.

Students are also encouraged to appreciate in depth the ethical and cultural aspects of the art, and apply this back to their clinical experiences.

“The innocent looking bird, perched on a branch and trying to sing in its natural environment prompted me to think about a patient I saw lying in bed, calling out to medical staff, only to be dismissed as they are told that they are ‘doing fine’ or ‘need to continue with their course of treatment’,” said a different student regarding a painting.

Mahesha Dombagolla thinks that drawing upon indigenous art can help students have better cultural understanding. “Perhaps we can use Indigenous art to better understand their values and how we can incorporate these values when treating Indigenous patients.”

Breaking female taboos through poetry in India

A group of students from Calicut Medical College in India has also successfully used art to fuel open discussions about menstruation, a taboo subject in the region.

“When I was young, I was ashamed to talk about it. Most girls weren’t allowed into the temple or to do certain things when they were on their periods. One of my friends was confined to a room and no one would touch her, or eat with her while she was on,” said medical student Sreya Salim.

“It only takes a small number of people willing to break a taboo, and then the others will follow,” said Kavya Menon. Together with members of the college’s literary club, they held a menstruation-themed haiku and poetry competition to mark International Women’s Day earlier this year.

The competition was publicized across the country and received many entries. “We’re budding doctors, so if we don’t talk about this, who will?” said Menon.

Merging art with medical training

However, such ‘medical humanities’ programs will need to be evaluated of its benefits to convince academics and students that it deserves a spot in the heavily-packed medical curriculum.

Furthermore, the amount that students benefit from these programs can only be equivalent to the level of input and participation of the students themselves. MIMS

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