Arts Make For Good Medicine

There is a recent article in the Boston Globe about Harvard Medical School requiring its students to take arts courses that bears reading. (h/t Thomas Cott)

The Yale School of Medicine, for instance, requires students to scrutinize paintings in a museum to improve their skills at observation and empathy — a program that has been replicated around the country, including at Harvard and Brown. At Columbia, incoming medical students are required to complete a six-week narrative medicine course.


They are “a tool to help doctors understand people and their conditions.” They help doctors see beyond the disease, the “narrow biological aspect,” to the illness, which includes anxiety, fear, and the whole human experience of being sick, he said.

If there were ever a good illustration of the benefit of arts participation and practice to society, helping doctors be more effective diagnosticians, communicators and bring more empathy to anxiety inducing interactions with patients is pretty compelling.

And if it can do this for highly trained medical professionals who work under extremely stressful environments, well then it can probably provide similar benefits to elementary and high school kids as well.

I am not making an unwarranted leap of logic when I say this. The med student quotes in the articles could as easily be attributed to a high school learning environment. Insert the term high school in the following sentence and you can probably find something similar in an interview with a high school student.

“Medical school is so intense,” she said. “There’s a lot you have to suppress in yourself.” The more students learn to express their feelings through the arts, she said, “the less traumatized you will be.”

I was especially struck by a piece about the Comics and Medicine course at Penn State College of Medicine linked to in the Globe article.  I had never thought about the use of graphic novels to help doctors to understand the point of view of their patients, but also as a medium to tell their own stories.

Now they are registering based on recommendations from other students. Trey Banbury, a fourth-year medical student at Penn State who took Green’s course, said he was surprised when a comic helped him understand what mania looks and feels like for psychiatric patients.

“The graphic novels we were asked to read were simply incredible,” he said. “There are many things that cannot be said, but have to be shown.”

Students in Green’s class are required to do two things: read graphic novels and talk about them, and create their own graphic narrative. “What I help them do is take a story from their med school experience and turn it into a comic,” Green said.

Expert designers and artists are brought in to help students craft their comics. Like many in the course, Banbury had no prior experience in drawing. His comic, Perspective, shows how med students struggle with the stressors of medical school.

There are many layers to the benefits here. First, the doctors gain insight into what their patients are experiencing from reading graphic novels. Then they have to deal with the challenge of explaining themselves to an another person who will execute their comic, much as a patient has difficulty communicating their problems to a person who is not experiencing them.

As the large Baby Boomer generation ages, the type of skills these exercises develop in doctors will become increasingly important.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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