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.

A prescription for… art?

It’s safe to say that, when we think about personalized medicine, one of the last things that comes to mind is music. But, should it? These days, music streaming apps aren’t only organized by genre; you can easily find curated playlists that are designed to put you in a certain mood, or help you reach a goal (how about some “Cure those Monday morning blues” or “Songs to wake up happy,” anyone?). Many of us regularly use music as a tool to help us focus on the task at hand, or to pump ourselves up before a challenging workout.

Image courtesy of ShutterstockThere’s nothing particularly surprising about the fact that music affects how we feel. But, do we really understand what it does to our brains and bodies? The physiological and neurological effects of music are largely a mystery – one that Ketki Karanam, Head of Science at The Sync Project, is eager to solve. The Sync Project – whose Advisory board members include artists like Peter Gabriel, as well as neuroscientists and machine learning experts – is designing the first large scale data collection and machine learning models to understand these effects. It will identify how music’s structural properties – like beat and tempo – can affect our biometric rhythms, such as heart rate, sleep patterns, and brain activity.

The goal of the initiative? To identify potential music therapeutics that would serve as an alternative to drugs for health issues like insomnia, pain, and anxiety. Like Ketki, the relationship between music and medicine has also been a lifelong interest for Richard Kogan, who has led a distinguished career as both a psychiatrist and a concert pianist. A professor at the Weill Cornell Medical College, Richard has developed a series of renowned lecture-recitals, in which he examines the influence of psychological and psychiatric factors on the creative work of great composers, like Schumann, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Gershwin. In part, Richard is motivated by a desire to destigmatize mental illness by highlighting savants with mental disorders, whose symptoms may have inspired their creative processes.

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Scarred for Life, Ted Meyer

For both Ketki and Richard, music and medicine are inseparable. But does the relationship between the two extend beyond music, to other forms of art? According to artist and curator Ted Meyer, it does. Having been diagnosed with Gaucher disease, a rare genetic illness, at age 6, Ted spent years in hospital rooms creating paintings that depicted the loneliness, fatigue, and pain he experienced. Decades later, after a new drug was discovered to treat those symptoms, the subject of Ted’s art has changed. Today, his 18 year old project, “Scarred for Life,” chronicles the trauma and courage of people who have lived through accidents and health crises. Using this mixture of personal stories and a love for art, Ted has set out to improve the doctor-patient relationship. As an Artist in Residence at the USC Keck School of Medicine, Ted curates patient-artists whose work ties to the medical curriculum; for example, an artist with asthma for a class on the respiratory system. Ted hopes to expand this program to other medical schools, with a goal of teaching future doctors to look at their patients beyond their diagnoses, and view them as complex, whole human beings.

We are delighted that Ketki, Richard, and Ted will each be speaking on the TEDMED 2016 stage, where they will share their discoveries and unique insights about the relationship between art and medicine. We invite you to join us this November 30-December 2, in Palm Springs, CA, to learn more from them and other extraordinary speakers.