Art for the Healer

Fleisher and Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University work together to restore humanities in medical education

With its roots in the humanistic tradition, medicine and its practitioners historically cultivated a strong relationship with the arts. From Chekov to Netter, Borodin to Bell, successful physicians of the past practiced medicine alongside poetry, playwriting, visual and performance arts. At the turn of the 19th century medical education began to shift its focus, leaving little time for humanities and the arts in the life of a medical student.  The professionalization of medicine may have also created a set of unforeseen ill effects that have numerous implications on both medical students and practicing clinicians.

Today’s healers exhibit the highest suicide rate of any profession, close to a 50 percent burnout rate and decreasing levels of empathy. These statistics have prompted some to explore whether an expressive, emotive, focused, and meditative practice in the arts can foster experiences and skills to help doctors cope in an increasingly stressful environment.  Several recent case studies point to the positive benefits of art and humanities education, and medical schools across the country have taken notice.

Some of the nation’s top medical programs are integrating both mandatory and elective course work in visual arts and humanities. Medical schools are partnering with museums, theater companies, writers workshops, and art schools to provide future doctors with meaningful and immersive experiences in the arts. In these courses, students engage in critical analysis of artwork and develop insight through art’s lens, broadening their humanistic and sociocultural perspectives. Creating and interpreting works of art also helps develop observational skills that stand to improve a physician’s visual diagnostic abilities. The meditative focus involved in the hands-on process of making a work of art, has also been shown to relieve stress and prevent burn out.

A Partnership of Arts and Health
Since 2013, Fleisher has worked alongside Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University to provide specially tailored art education programs to its students. Serving as a stepping stone to the school’s recently formed Humanities Program, these courses have forged a stronger bond between art and medicine at the college. Fleisher’s teaching artist Julia Clift has been at the forefront of the collaboration, leading observational drawing courses that promote careful observation and focused concentration.

Above: student work exploring  tone and value from Visualizing Anatomy, 2016. In this exercise, students made tonal drawings to better understand and decipher tonal range and value. Expanded perception of tone can help doctors better analyze X-ray and MRI imagery.

Visualizing Anatomy is course co-created by Julia Clift and Dr. Elizabeth Spudich, Anatomy Professor at Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University. With a focus on training students in deeper visual perception, based on the five perceptions outlined by Betty Edwards in Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, the program includes seven workshop sessions that are tightly coordinated with the anatomy curriculum, directly supplementing both dissection and case-based lessons. The program teaches students to distinguish subtle differences in greys and in color, recognize patterns and structural arrangements, and fluidly translate between two and three-dimensional visualizations.

Above: diagnosing through drawing student work from Visualizing Anatomy, 2016. Students drew from photographs of patients diagnosed with a disease that affects facial features. After drawing, students are asked to diagnose the particular disease. 

On April 22, four years after the birth of the partnership between Fleisher and the medical college, the growing importance of art and humanities at medical schools in the Philadelphia region was celebrated at the Frank H. Netter Symposium on Arts and Health. Fleisher, along with Elsevier and the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts, was a partner and provided workshops in drawing, painting, sculpture, and printmaking to symposium attendees.

Above: Guided by Fleisher teaching artist Darla Jackson, participants in the molding clay workshop at the Frank H. Netter Symposium explored one of the simplest and most responsive modeling materials. Participants exercised visual-spatial thinking and are introduced to basic sculptural concepts such as volume, plane, texture, line, and weight.

For the Netter Symposium, Fleisher also organized a digital exhibition of artworks made by medical students and professionals. The theme of the exhibit, in honor of the influential talent of Frank H. Netter, was Human Anatomy. Over 100 pieces were submitted and the juror, Fleisher’s exhibitions manager, José Ortiz Pagán, selected finalists in five different categories: painting, drawing, crafts, sculpture, and photography. The impressive range of artworks and artists in the exhibition is itself evidence of a growing interest in the arts among medical professionals. Images from the exhibition and the award winners are featured in the video below.

Looking Ahead
This summer, the partnership will take a step forward with a pilot program designed for both students and practicing professionals. At Fleisher, this five-week workshop will provide an introduction to the visual principals and elements of art and design. With an emphasis on observation, the course will introduce technical skills in different media while encouraging intuitive self-expression. Lessons are tailored specifically to the medical audience, with goals of increasing empathy, strengthening crucial perceptual skills, and studying anatomical structures.

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