Art Classes Are Helping Transform Medical Education

It makes sense that artist Anne Willieme, who founded ArtMed inSight, a consultancy that brings art-based education to medical institutions, would see the connections between art and science. “Art and science have so much in common,” she told Hyperallergic in a phone interview. Both “are rooted in a sense of wonder about the world, giving form to an understanding of the world, and deal with interpretation as well. But of course, their methods can be seen as different.”

The fields of art and science were not always as “polarized” as they are treated today, Willieme points out. But through a recent increase in programs like hers, which include collaborations between artists, museums, and medical institutions, “this polarization is softening, and we can see bridges, which I think is so exciting.”

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After graduating with an MFA in visual art from George Washington University, Willieme was increasingly drawn to the idea of applying art in medical settings, especially after a personal experience in a hospital made her recognize the value of integrating art into its sterile, often disorienting environment. “When patients are there in a very vulnerable situation, all of that can really uplift someone,” she explained. She began to work on installation concepts for medical settings and study art’s use in healing and learning. Willieme gave lectures and tours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art before branching out into medical classrooms, eventually founding ArtMed inSight in 2007. She has since taught seminars and courses at institutions like Massachusetts General Hospital, Columbia University Medical Center, Mount Sinai St. Luke’s, and New York University (NYU) Langone Medical Center.

Willieme’s current classes focus on teaching medical students, physicians, and healthcare workers on how to enhance their skills of observation and perception. Art “gave me an extra lens on the world, the capacity to see more,” Willieme said, which made her want to help others develop the skill of “looking in different ways.” She created a method of focused perceptual exploration which draws on research in art, meditation, and neuroscience and is informed by similar learning models like Dr. Abigail Housen and Philip Yenawine’s Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS).

Anne Willieme’s ArtMed inSight class at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

In Willieme’s classes, students look at and create their own artworks — using drawing, photography, and, for their final project, any medium — to slow down their interpretation of what they see. Willieme hopes to provide her students with techniques they can use to better absorb information in clinical situations, from examining and diagnosing patients to recognizing their own perspectives and emotions. One physician told Willieme that after taking her workshop, they were able to understand a specific problem a patient was trying to describe by taking on the patient’s point of view: looking with them, instead of at them.  

Rising resident Youssef El Rahimy, who took Willieme’s intensive seminar at NYU, found the lessons helped him assess perspective and bias when working with patients as well. Though it can be hard to do under time pressure, “if you just … take that moment to really think about what perspective you’re employing, and what you’re coming to a certain encounter with … [it can] completely change how you’re interpreting the information in front of you,” he said in a phone interview.

Hannah Weber, an MD/PhD student at NYU, said that examining “body language … and self and emotional awareness” in the class helped her apply the same concepts in her work, making her “more aware of these connections between art and medicine.”

“For people of a non-art background … all of these things can seem intimidating, or maybe not totally practical or applicable to our setting, and I think that’s one of the big hurdles,” said medical student Roshan Poudel. “Once people see how relatable it really is … you can bring that one lesson to so many situations.” In the words of El Rahimy, art, like medicine, gets at “what it is to be a human in certain vulnerable times.”

Anne Willieme, from the Braille Dreams series. “These represent a selection of my dreams translated into Braille and set on the backdrop of star formations.”

Classes like Willieme’s are part of the burgeoning field of medical humanities, which aims to tackle the disciplinary divide. “I think there’s this false distinction between the arts, humanities and the sciences,” said Katie Grogan, the associate director of the Master Scholars Program in Humanistic Medicine at NYU. “To my mind that seems like more of a cultural demarcation … Things like disease, disability, death, the processes of scientific experimentation and discovery, they don’t happen in a vacuum. They take place in the context of human experience, including systems of structural oppression and power dynamics and constructed norms about what counts as evidence, what’s significant — so these things are always in discourse with each other, and I think it’s absolutely vital that they are. I think separating them is artificial and, frankly, kind of dangerous.” Grogan is “in the fortunate position of getting to engage students very early on,”and encourages programs like Willieme’s “popular, highly enrolled” class that can help bridge the gap.

But art’s impact is notoriously subjective, and medicine relies on quantifiable outcomes. In addition to students’ anecdotal evidence, studies are being conducted to prove the benefits of art-based classes on health and wellbeing. A 2018 study published in Academic Medicine demonstrated that participants in Willieme’s class improved their tolerance for uncertainty and achieved statistically significant improvements in the skill of reflection — both important qualities in facing the challenges of medical practice.

Radiology resident Ariella Noorily is spearheading a current NYU study examining the impact of Wilieme’s class on self-awareness and mindfulness. “Those are skills that you can teach, and they are foundational to … wellness” and burnout, which many physicians struggle with today — not least in the context of the pandemic, Noorily explained by phone. Though analysis is ongoing, preliminary results suggest that students show “pretty significant improvements … on self-awareness, mindfulness, and stress levels” after the course. The study also compares in-person and virtual experiences, as the class went virtual during the pandemic. According to Willieme, the results appear “stable whether the teaching was done in person or via online sessions.” She is excited by that prospect in terms of expanding accessibility for future students.

“Wine Synesthesia” (2021–2022) installation in development, concept by Anne Willieme and architectural drawing by Gabriel Tomasulo. Willieme describes the installation as part of her “current exploration of the senses and cross-sensory perception.”

“I do think that [integrating the humanities] is becoming the norm,” Noorily said. Since Penn State University established the first humanities department in a medical school in 1967, more and more programs have provided interdisciplinary opportunities. The Association of American Medical Colleges’ December 2020 report on “The Fundamental Role of the Arts and Humanities in Medical Education” showed that the number of health humanities programs increased almost sevenfold in the past 20 years. And in 2018, 94% of medical schools reported providing required or elective courses in medical humanities, though the amount and content can vary widely. The report concluded with recommendations for more integrated approaches, acknowledging that there is still a ways to go to recognize the fields as interrelated, rather than divided.

Willieme continues to work towards this in multiple ways through her teaching and art practice — she is currently developing a soundscape installation, for which she hopes to use augmented reality technology to replace a hospital’s symphony of monotone beeps with the nourishing sounds of nature. She is also planning several new workshops in 2022, including a virtual seminar on “The Art of Seeing: Enhancing Observation and Presence.” “I would hope that art would be a part of all of our lives,” Willieme said.


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