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Published in Alumni Publications on January 15, 2014

Art teaches physicians to see the big picture

By Gary Pettus

If you’re a physician, you don’t have to draw, paint or sculpt to be an artist; often, the only thing you have to do is your job.

 miller_hesserBetween art and medicine, there is a profound link, and there are even lessons a physician can learn from studying and creating art, experts say.

Medicine is, in fact, practiced by artists; or vice versa.

“By viewing art, by becoming engaged in it, you develop the skill to learn how to look and listen,” said Alexa Miller, a medical education consultant who teaches at Brandeis University in Massachusetts.

“You learn to hold multiple possibilities in the mind at one time, to make sense of the world and respond to it. That’s important in art training.”

It’s important in medical training as well. Taking note, more and more medical schools and residency programs are incorporating the humanities.

Those works are tools to “stimulate dialogue, discussion, and awareness …, particularly in areas of doctoring, the experience of illness, and end-of-life issues,” as reported by researchers in the Family Practice Residency Program, White Memorial Medical Center, Los Angeles in 2005 (“Visual Thinking Strategies: A New Role for Art in Medical Education”).

Attention to visual arts in particular can sharpen students’ skills in observation, critical thinking, communication and description, Miller said.

“When a doctor is listening to what a patient is trying to describe but doesn’t quite have the words for it, that doctor must give the patient the words— and must not change what’s being described. What the artist does is similar.

“Physicians who are artists at an expert level look at a patient the way an artist would look at a work of art.”

This is what Dr. Kim Sessums of Brookhaven does, she said. “He is interpreting a person.” And he does so in his medical practice and in his art.

To do so requires skill in what is called “right-brain” thinking – using the part of the brain that is nonverbal and spatial, as opposed to the left brain’s logical and analytical deliberations.

Miller illustrated the difference by describing an olive oil tin in her kitchen: “The left-brain way would see a square shape and the words ‘olive oil.’

“An artist would also see the shadow behind it and notice there is a reflection off the top of the tin onto the wall. An artist would take in a lot more information about its proportions, colors, tone and the relationships between the object and its surroundings.

“Physicians observing patients that way would take in everything and describe it before they begin judging: The doctor realizes that the patient comes from a certain place, family and culture.”
Engaging in the arts can build empathy — a quality that’s important in medicine, said Jane Hesser, an artist and psychiatric social worker at Women and Infants Hospital Rhode Island.

“If a physician interested in the arts asked me if I thought it would be beneficial to his or her doctoring to be engaged in the arts, I would say, ‘Yes,’” Hesser said. “And I would say the key to it is mindful engagement — you are aware when you are engaging in the arts or when you’re making art.

“You can learn specific skills, such as gathering accurate observations.
“But you’re not going to become a better doctor by just looking at a painting.”

Larry Lugar of Eads, Tenn., a bronze foundry owner, has worked with such sculptor/artists as Sessums; these clients nurture the relationship between medicine and arts, he said.

“I know one doctor who believes that art is a very important part of healing; it can’t just be oil changes and tune-ups. Healing deals with people’s emotions and psyches, not just their organs.

“When that’s taken into account, they heal more completely.”

The humanities in general hold value for everyone, Miller said. “It’s a questioning way of seeing the world that tolerates ambiguity.

“That’s what people need to do to be able to function well in work, in democracy and in society; and to be able to empathize with people who are very different from them.”