We’ve all been there—sitting in a crowded and sterile emergency room, waiting for our number to come up like car owners waiting for their turn to get an oil change—and treated just as impersonally. For too long, the field of medicine evolved without considering or caring about the feelings of the people they were treating, focusing nearly exclusively on the tangible aspects of healing. But there is a growing belief that by including more humanities curriculum within medical training, students can learn to treat the very elements that make us human. Therese “Tess” Jones, director of the Arts and Humanities in Healthcare Program at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, makes that her goal.
By the 1970s, thanks to increasing technology, medical schools became giant health science centers focusing on technology and procedure, “and there was this sense that something was missing,” Jones says. “One medical school historian stated that what ultimately became missing was the medical student; that it was so focused on technology and cutting edge information and training that the idea of the human experience of illness, the empathic connection between patient and physician, all of these things were really not a part of the educational world. As patients became more disgruntled, the arts and humanities came to be seen as a corrective for this,” adds Jones.
But are teaching humanities subjects like film studies, art appreciation or creative writing to medical students the solution? Jones would say it’s a good place to start: “One of the main focuses is empathy: How do we begin to understand where someone who is completely different from us is coming from? It begins by educating students about themselves. Art works as a mirror and a lamp; it enlightens us about other people’s experience, but if we hold it up, we get a sense of what our own biases are because of how we are coming to this.
How does that then carry into patient care?” Jones continues. “How do racial, ethnic, ageism, sexism, homophobia, classism, sizeism—how do all these things filter into the way you respond when you walk in and you see a particular patient?”
This new way of thinking has not only affected the doctor/patient relationship, but also the thoughts of how activities and architecture impact the patients and staff. Numerous hospitals now include an art gallery free to patients and staff; Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles has one of the most valuable collections in the world. Another hospital placed a video recording booth in the ER and encouraged those waiting to use it to express their stories. The videos collected not only allowed the patients to express their pain and fear, but also gave hospital administrators data about their facilities that they would never have had access to before.
But what is the health impact? In a recent study, the British Arts Council found that the inclusion of specific artistic elements in a London hospital had very large influences upon the patients and staff; reported incidents of pain, stress, and length of hospital stay all decreased, while employee retention increased. “Having the visual arts present, not just hanging on the wall, but very present, for instance in labor and delivery, they found that abstract paintings, not landscapes, not flowers, but abstract paintings, actually reduced pain,” says Jones. “And that in turn reduced the use of analgesics.”
At the Fulginiti Pavilion on the Anschutz Medical campus, Jones oversees an art gallery, organizes weekly lectures, teaches classes on the humanities and bioethics, and even organizes creative writing workshops. The attendances of these events have shown her that there is a great need within the medical community as well as the local community for these types of activities.
The connection between medicine and the humanities is an age-old concept. “(The humanities) have always been a part of the medical tradition. In some ways the integration or inclusion of the arts and humanities into medical education or health science education is almost a throwback. It sounds innovative because of how we’ve separated out art and science over the years, but in a lot of ways it really goes back to the way in which medical education was envisioned; physicians would be educated in the sense of having a liberal arts background,” says Jones.
It seems obvious that humans are more than simple biological machinery; that we have what some would call an enlightened intellect and others a touch of the divine. But whatever you may call it, we can all agree that we are greater—and far more complex—than just the sum of limbs and organs. In the moments when we are the most hurt and afraid, we should be treated as such.