Monday, August 24, 2015

Interacting with the arts in medicine: a web-based repository for teaching and learning

- Caroline Wellbery, MD, PhD

A cadre of physicians and other health practitioners, mostly educators in medical schools, believe in the healing power of the arts. Many of these clinicians find ways of incorporating the arts into their practice. Although hard evidence is lacking, the arts can be used to improve clinical observation, deepen the doctor-patient relationship and prevent physician burnout. Playing music for and with patients, listening to and re-telling stories, and spending time looking at art all have a role in teaching medical trainees and caring for patients.

Over the years, I have developed a rich web-based resource from which physicians and students can draw—the website “Interacting with the arts in medicine.” This repository of visual, auditory and narrative art covers many relevant topics—from learning anatomy to patients’ experience of illness to challenges faced at the end of life.

Winthrop Chandler - Dr. William Gleason, 1785 Oil Ohio Historical Society

Many of the works included in the site are the result of personal relationships I’ve cultivated with artists around a mutual interest in medicine. Once while reading the newspaper, I came across an article about a dancer, Ciao-Ping Li, who had choreographed a work entitled “Painkillers.” The article described how Ciao-Ping Li created this work in response to a serious car accident that had among other injuries crushed her foot. The performance chronicles her ordeal as she tried unsuccessfully to return to dance. Seeing that Ciao-Ping was in town to premiere this work, I attended her event and afterwards introduced myself. I asked if I could post her story on my website and she graciously agreed. She not only sent me pictures of her surgeries, but included clips from her choreographic work as well. In a similar way, I have connected with musicians, photographers, poets and storytellers, all of whom have generously allowed me to share their work on the site. I have always joked that my greatest talent is recognizing the talent of others and indeed, the website casts me as a kind of impresario of the arts-in-medicine.

Many of the features on the website address common clinical scenarios. In that, they complement the humanities features we publish in American Family Physician, notably Curbside Consultation, which addresses clinical dilemmas, and Close-ups, a patient page which gives patients a forum in which to tell their stories. So, for example, I’ve included in my website my colleague Heike Bailin’s humorous ruminations on caring for challenging patients, which complements many of Curbside’s themes. Or, as mentioned on the website’s page on social isolation featuring Anne Sexton’s poem, “The Touch,” I include as an additional resource one of our earliest Close-ups on the patient-physician contact during the physical exam as described in a patient’s reflection on “The Importance of Touch.”

While most medical journals provide a space for reflective writing, and some feature visual art, the pieces they publish must conform to each journal’s didactic agenda. The “Interacting with the arts in medicine” website celebrates a more open-ended approach to the arts and their application. Most features begin with a series of questions I have asked to challenge the user. Each visitor must decide how he or she wishes to engage with the site’s resources: for entertainment, to share with a patient, to pass on to a student, or to help mend a personal wound.

Some sections of the site are still being built. The visitor is invited to offer feedback, connections and additional materials or ideas. I hope you will enjoy browsing the site and finding stories, poems or images that resonate with you.

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Note: Dr. Wellbery is Associate Deputy Editor of AFP.

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