How Can I Combine My Passions for Medicine and Art?

Sarah Averill, MD


October 04, 2011


I'd like to explore my interest in art while I'm in medical school. How can I get involved?

Response from Sarah Averill, MD
Resident, University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, Iowa City

When I entered medical school, there was growing interest in recruiting students who had diverse backgrounds and life experience beyond good grades in biochemistry class. Now that I'm on the other side of the MD, I have been actively crafting a career that includes visual art and creative writing.

There are many ways you can incorporate art into your medical training.

If you attend a medical school that has an active arts or humanities program, such as the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), Columbia University in New York, Shands HealthCare (affiliated with the University of Florida)or the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City, then you can easily nurture your creative side.

Even without access to arts-based programming, you can join national organizations and conferences that blend medicine and art. These conferences, programs, and poets provide a good place to start.

Art for Recovery Program

The Art for Recovery Program at UCSF Medical Center promotes healing and engages patients through arts and writing. One of the first hospital-based programs to bring creative arts to patients suffering from chronic disease and cancer, the program was started by an oncologist who recognized that patients need social support and an outlet for expression.

Medical students at UCSF, and from other institutions, can get involved in specific projects such as Firefly letter-writing, in which participants exchange letters with patients for a year. You might try to start a similar program at your home institution.

As an intern, I spent 1 month observing the Art for Recovery program and saw the impact it had on patients' lives. On any given day, I crossed paths with a musician leading a sing-along or a group of colorful minstrels providing relief from the hushed and stark hospital setting. The program also incorporates dance and studio art.

The first week I was there, I observed a cancer patient working on a self-portrait in an open studio session. When I asked her what she liked about the studio, she said, "Here, I can come and it's all right if I'm not okay. Here, when I say I have 'chemo-brain' or when I make a piece of work about my painfully swollen arm, the other people here understand and truly accept where I'm at."

The bonding I witnessed in the studio was unlike anything I'd seen in medical school or my internship. It was heartening and inspiring to see how artists helped patients deal with illness.

Figure. Some projects leave the hospital with their makers; others, like this set of tiles showing medicinal plants and narrative text, are built into the hospital's architecture.

Conferences and Writers

The literary arts provide another medium with which to develop and explore concepts such as empathy. Training in theater helps medical students control body language and tone of voice to convey both factual and emotional information to patients and their families. In addition, musical performances raise funds and develop community awareness around health and wellness.

You can get other ideas from the Society for Arts in Healthcare annual conference -- a good place for you delve into the creative arts.

Participants at this year's conference, hosted by Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, included dancers, musicians, child life specialists, researchers, and many others.

You will need to be proactive and imaginative when you're seeking involvement with organizations you encounter at these conferences. Talk with the organization's leaders and ask how you might contribute.

You might try getting involved between first and second year, or at the end of fourth year when you have more breathing room to develop a specific skill or interest.

For those interested in writing, consider attending The Examined Life: Writing and the Art of Medicine, a conference hosted by the University of Iowa. This year, the meeting included 1-day writing workshops. Participants read excerpts from their work to the public at a local bookstore.

If you want to learn more about poetry, check out physician Rafael Campo's The Healing Art: The Doctor's Black Bag of Poetry . His book explains how the art form enhances patient-physician interactions.

Another leader in poetry and medicine, John Fox, director of the Institute of Poetic Medicine offers workshops for both patients and providers, and his Website provides a wealth of resources to explore the healing power of writing.

Another conference to consider is that of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities. This annual meeting attracts ethicists and academics to discuss and interpret creative works that inform medical practice.

You can also join the listserv maintained by the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities, to learn about conferences, publications, films, and fellowships that tie medicine and the humanities.

In conclusion, medicine and the arts are intertwined in complex and evolving ways. There is no one path to developing a career that combines them, but there are many physicians who provide models that can help you weave your talents and interests into or alongside your daily practice.


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.