Bringing Arts Back to the Art of Medicine

Yash B. Shah


December 16, 2021

Medicine seems to be an inherently fact-based, science-driven profession. We spend years studying in-depth coursework in biology, chemistry, and the physical sciences, followed by a grueling 4-year curriculum studying clinically based science. But medical education was not always so heavily based on the sciences, and centuries ago, it truly was the healer's art.

The fine arts have been firmly intertwined with medical education since the start of the profession, yet this relationship is often forgotten in the modern era, where we prioritize knowledge and scientific innovation.

Centuries ago, physicians communicated with paintings, depicting anatomic discoveries, disease pathologies, and procedural techniques with artistic skill. Although this is certainly less effective and does not offer ideal patient outcomes, there are several benefits to the incorporation of art within the medical field.

Over the past several years, numerous medical schools across the country have pioneered a refocusing on the humanities in complement to their science-based medical education. The logic is that physicians are inherently humans, and our field is one of service.

In addition to a deep knowledge of the right drugs, diagnoses, and anatomy, or procedural skills and practice, we must offer a humanistic and compassionate approach to ensure ideal patient outcomes. This key emotional intelligence and humanistic knowledge can be accomplished through a complementary education in art, music, literature, and philosophy.

I took a class called "The Art of Observation," hosted by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. This course focused on developing future physicians' observation skills to ultimately improve patient-centered care. We discussed history of art in medical education and the inherent importance of teaching humanities, as doctors serve humans. Later, we developed observational skills through paintings to notice people's traits and improve emotional intelligence by recognizing minute visual aspects. The final session guided students in drawing the human body with live models, exercising our new observation skills and applying them to a real individual, while also developing skills of patience and resiliency.

The basis for this particular class emerged out of several experimental courses at Yale University. A dermatology professor there noticed that residents lacked adequate observational skills when diagnosing their patients. The department designed a curriculum for their residents involving visits to the local art museum, where they would dissect paintings and discuss seemingly minute details. Over time, this evolved into a graduation requirement for Yale medical students, and numerous subsequent studies have shown that students who spent mere hours in the museum created more accurate and useful differential diagnoses for their patients.

The underlying theory is that effective observation is key to serving patients. What one sees, hears, or smells, breaking it down into small parts like lines and angles in drawing, is as important as the patient's words, lab results, and imaging.

I found my own experience extremely fruitful, and I found my mindset largely changed as a result of this class. I certainly do not see myself as artistically skilled, but I have always had an interest in the humanities. Initially, I appreciated contextualizing my medical education within the evolution of medical education over time. I learned that medicine was not always centered around science and actually originated with the study of humanity.

Although we have certainly made progress in our field, it is important to identify our roots and examine how we can learn from the past. This showed me potential gaps in my current medical education. I learned that although medicine is a science, it really is also an art, as a doctor is equally responsible for addressing the patient's emotional state and their physical health.

The insights I gleaned from this course will undoubtedly facilitate my patient-focused care, helping physical health outcomes but hopefully also ensuring patient happiness and mental health. I hope that experiences like these continue to develop my emotional intelligence, something that is slowly becoming even more important than content knowledge as our profession uncovers an endless amount of data every day and we move toward a future of automation, robotics, and telemedicine.

Finally, humanities classes such as these remind students why they entered medicine in the first place, hopefully combating burnout and improving feelings of fulfillment. They offer a much-needed break from coursework. Ultimately, happy physicians will produce better outcomes for patients. In medical school, residency, and beyond, it is easy to get bogged down in the world of science. Reminding ourselves of the human-focused reasons we embarked on this journey will be key to our own wellness and the well-being of the profession at large.

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About Yash Shah
Yash Shah is a first-year medical student at Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He earned a bachelor of science in premedicine at Penn State University. Prior to attending medical school, Yash worked on clinical and translational research in hematology/oncology at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Yash has long-standing interests in advancing medical education, improving healthcare policy and economics, and working with cancer patients. He enjoys playing tennis, rooting for the Eagles, reading, and traveling in his free time.


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