Physicians Benefit by Studying the Art of Medicine

July 26, 2010
Ed Rabinowitz

More medical schools are publishing literary magazines and artistic journals that encourage doctors, nurses and patients to express their feelings through artistic endeavors, such as painting, writing and photography. Not surprisingly, the field of art therapy is rapidly expanding in physician practices.

Canadian physician William Osler, MD, often credited with establishing the practice of the medical residency, once noted that, “The practice of medicine is an art, not a trade …”

More medical schools are taking those words to heart, publishing literary magazines and artistic journals that encourage doctors, nurses and patients to express their feelings through artistic endeavors, such as painting, writing and photography. Not surprisingly, the field of art therapy is rapidly expanding.

“Art therapy uses visual art, combined with clinical mental health counseling and psychotherapy, to promote wellness psychologically, physically and spiritually,” explains Dr. Laury Rappaport, a board-certified Registered Art Therapist with the American Art Therapy Association, and an associate professor at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, Calif. “It’s really designed to promote wellness and well-being.”

Promoting Empathy, Compassion and UnderstandingArt therapy can be used in the medical field in several ways. According to Rappaport, the process itself can be healing, producing something similar to a relaxation response -- transporting someone away from the difficulties they’re having. It can also be used to help patients get in touch with their feelings -- and to help physicians understand those feelings.

Rappaport recalls a female patient in her 20s who came down with an unexpected terminal illness. The patient was quite angry at her illness, and depicted those feelings in a drawing -- the outline of a body and the illness represented by a creature inside the body, clawing and scratching, creating much physical pain. But when Rappaport encouraged the woman to be friendly rather than angry toward the illness, the drawing changed to one where the woman was holding, even embracing, the creature.

“A picture is worth a thousand words,” Rappaport says. “It’s very visual. The physician can see it, and instantly understand how the patient feels. It promotes more empathy, compassion and understanding.”

Putting Art to WorkIn Boston, the Whittier Street Health Center and Lesley University are teaming up to explore trends in using art therapy in the healthcare field. The center’s Arts Therapy program is examining how arts therapy can be used to treat obesity, asthma, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, cancer and heart disease. Shikha Anand, MD, MPH, assistant professor of pediatrics at the Boston University School of Medicine, and Whittier’s Pediatric Director, says the arts bring about a different mode of expression for patients.

“We have a lot of patients who don’t necessarily want to speak about their problems,” Anand explains. “In those cases, art therapy can be great, because while they’re averse to talking about their problems, they’re not averse to playing music or painting pictures that describe their problems.”

Frederica Williams, president and CEO at Whittier, says the center started its Arts Therapy program with children because they’re “always quick to try anything and express themselves.” But the program has rapidly expanded to adults of all ages, including nursing homes for patients with dementia, and those who possess poor verbal skills or for whom English is a second language. “People express themselves differently. We’re able to get things out of patients that they might not be able to verbalize in an office visit,” Williams says.

That’s especially true for children, whose emotional spectrum for expression isn’t very developed at a younger age. “Having a different mode to let out their emotions can be very helpful,” says Anand.

Introducing the Arts to TherapyAnand says that interested physicians who have no training or background in art therapy can still apply the approach by partnering with organizations in their community. Most communities have dance programs for urban children, or visual-arts programs for children of underserved backgrounds. Any venue that offers children, or adults for that matter, a venue for expression is a good place to start.

She also says that arts therapy can be just as beneficial for physicians as it can be for patients. “There are certainly a lot of complex emotions associated with bearing responsibility for the care of an individual or a family,” Anand explains. “The arts can serve as that introspective element that allows physicians to cope with the sometimes difficult realities of taking responsibility for peoples’ care.”

And then there’s the benefit of an enhanced physician-patient relationship. “Watching your patients go through this therapeutic process, and then having them come back and share their experiences with you, it’s an incredibly rewarding experience,” Anand says. “It certainly brings physicians closer to their patients because they have a better understanding of their spectrum of emotion.”