Patient-artists in medical schools

The trend of including the arts and humanities in the medical education realm is growing rapidly. Studies show immersion in the creative arts improves students’ observation skills, empathic engagement, and even a comfort with ambiguity. Major medical schools around the United States are investing in artists and creating innovative programs, and patient-artists are leading the way.

As Artist-in-Residence at the University of California Los Angeles and now at the University of Southern California, I have been honored to curate gallery shows that have energized the student body and faculty into engaging around topics that bridge the continuum from bench research to patient care.

At the Keck School of Medicine at USC, this curation has produced exhibits that illustrate the patient experience to future medical students, faculty and researchers. The idea is that a painting or work of art can reveal useful information about a patient’s lived experience better than the medical record or a list of lab values can. This is what has led the school to integrate the shows with its core curriculum in the first 2 years and explore the possibilities that have opened up. Interviews with the artists followed by Q&A with the students have led to discussions about the clinical gaze, embodiment of illness, metaphorical language and how visual representations can allow patients and doctors to bridge the communication divide effectively and with compassion.

Image from “Artist & Researcher.” By Qathryn Brehm, Los Angeles, CA

A perfect example of this is Siobhan Hebron, a performance artist with a brain tumor. She describes her experience of living with a serious and life-shortening diagnosis with an unflinching gaze and in this way allows the viewer into an empathic engagement without resorting to a reductive stance. She is much more than her illness, and yet she is also ruled by her illness. Such is the tension that exists in the lives of those who are living with chronic or life-threatening illness. And this is the landscape that the physician of the future will have to become familiar with as technological advancements make living with chronic illness a broader and more common reality.

In the Spring/Summer of 2017, I organized “Artist & Researcher,” a show that paired artists from the community with USC’s medical researchers to create visual and representational art about their research. The thought was that translating the impact and the beauty of the research in this way would inform the lay public, patients and the medical community in general about the work being done on campus. When the show was conceived my assumption was that the flow of information would go in one direction, researcher to artist. The researcher would explain and the artists would create. However, something quite unexpected was noted to happen: the researchers said that their conceptualization of the work was altered by having such in-depth discussions with non-researchers, and that the artist’s depiction of their research gave them a fresh outlook on the subject.

Image from “Pain”, a mail in art show at USC’s Keck School of Medicine. By H.M. Murphy, San Diego, CA.

In the Fall of 2017, the show “Pain 2” explores pain and the different ways that people from different cultures might depict the subject. An international call for mail-in art was sent out earlier in the year, and the gallery received over 300 pieces of mail from 18 countries. Images about subjects as varied as a simple stubbed toe to cancer, suicide, parental detainment during WWII, to life in prison and ever-present back and head pain came in packages and postcards of all sizes and shapes. The results were revelatory. As a patient with a painful illness of my own (Gaucher Disease) I had assumed that the majority of images would be about physical pain, but in fact, almost 40% touched on emotional pain and depression. There was also one image decrying the pain of a parking ticket. A favorite pieces of mine.

Solo artist shows, mail in art show or artist and researcher shows, the response from the medical community and public has been immediate and positive. The level of engagement in the sciences is enhanced by this transmission of ideas in the visual medium, while the creativity and risk-taking inherent to the arts, in turn, informs the research process and brings us closer to the consilience of these two seemingly disparate yet deeply connected realms.

These art exhibits and the patient-artists who make this kind of art serve as a potent resource for the medical educator training the next generation of doctors. The lessons these patient-artists embed into their work are not to be found elsewhere, and do justice to the complexity of illness in a manner not available in any other medium.