Art Integrated Medical Awareness and Education

Panteha Abareshi, Methods of Care for the Precarious Body, 2021, multimedia performance

In the performance, Methods of Care for the Precarious Body, multidisciplinary artist Panteha Abareshi models their body in choreographed poses and gestures that are reflective of “therapeutic” instructions gleaned from spliced together archival slides of government-subsidized silent films used for medical education between 1950 and 1970.  

Panteha Abareshi, Methods of Care for the Precarious Body, 2020.
Still from film and live performance.

Abareshi’s gestures and her attire of medical braces and restraints, addresses the objectification and restriction that disabled individuals are subjected to within the biomedical community and culture at large. By appropriating the framework of educational videos, Abareshi is depicting how bodies are made impersonal and transformed into what they describe as “a mere material in capturing the complex dynamics of care and control, tenderness and dehumanization within the imaging and handling of the disabled, ill body.”

The performance is a poignant reflection of medical education’s lack of focus on chronic pain and illness. It also signifies a greater need for social and emotional learning (SEL) to be integrated into the medical school curriculum. In an article within the peer-reviewed journal Postgraduate Medicine, medical practitioners and educators John D. Loeser and Michael E. Schatman (2017) report that, “there is no evidence that the physicians that we are producing today have become any more adept at treating patients with the disease of chronic pain.” Furthermore, the authors state that the crux of this inadequate training is due to a poor doctor-patient relationship in dealing with pain management and bias against patients who report chronic pain. They elaborate that, “The failure to teach undergraduate medical students appropriate biopsychosocial chronic pain management skills is consistent with the finding that preclinical relationship skills curricula are not well-coordinated with clinical curricula” (Loeser and Schatman, 2017).

One of the major underlying issues identified in critiques like the aforementioned journal article, is that medical students are not getting enough social and emotional learning skills within their core curriculum. One obvious solution is that courses in the humanities should supplement biomedical coursework. Viewing and discussing consequential artwork like Methods of Care for the Precarious Body would highlight the importance of understanding bodily phenomena that is not widely discussed within medical pedagogy. Furthermore, art helps to establish emotional connections to what we see and how we communicate those feelings with others, which is an essential skill that can be used to address bias and misunderstandings between doctors and their patients.

The attempt to incorporate the humanities into medical pedagogy has been an ongoing effort. Some medical schools already have humanities requirements for students, which include art history classes and basic studio art instruction. For several decades, pulmonologist Marc Moss has been researching how certain art-centered experiences can benefit medical students and in-practice medical professionals (see: Flock, 2019). At the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, Moss has assembled a team of doctors, artists and therapists in an experiential learning initiative called the Colorado Resiliency Arts Lab (CORAL). The lab provides insights into how various artistic practices (including visual, performing and literary) help relieve stress and prevent burnout among practicing healthcare professionals.

The benefits of doctors maintaining good mental health and enlivening their overall human experiences through artistic creation can be twofold. In addition to boosting their own well-being, the arts are a significant outlet for being more understanding of other people’s experiences and feelings. This is in line with CORAL’s vision to, “encourage healthcare providers and hospital support staff to find a creative outlet, build their identity and establish a sense of community through the arts. By creating a more engaged workforce, we can support healthcare professionals in their efforts to improve patient outcomes, enhance patient and family satisfaction and reduce healthcare costs.”

Art also helps doctors communicate better, and personable communication is essential in bridging the gap between effective biopsychosocial chronic pain management and good doctor-patient relationships. Studies and first-hand assessments from prior course-related experiences show that “looking at artworks can help future doctors hone their observation skills, maintain objectivity and cope with moments of uncertainty” (Lesser, 2018).

An example highlighting the benefits that artistic engagement has on doctors’ expressions of empathy, is a course taught by Dr. Michael Flanagan at the Penn State College of Medicine called “Impressionism and the Art of Communication.” In the class, medical students are exposed to the work of Impressionist artists such as Vincent Van Gogh who utilized art as a means to symbolically express his struggles with physical and mental ailments. Using Impressionist artworks as avenues for exploration, discovery and insight, the medical students engage in active learning exercises such as deep observation and formal and conceptual analysis. They are also prompted to express themselves by making their own works of art and discussing their creative process and intent with their peers in classroom critiques. As art critic Casey Lesser (2017) explains, “Through the process, they learn to better communicate with patients by developing insights on subjects like mental illness and cognitive bias.”

Whether our goal is to become an artist or a healthcare provider (or any career path for that matter), having exposure to the arts is helpful in acquiring essential skills and enduring social and emotional understandings that are beneficial to myriad subjects, disciplines and practices in our careers and lives.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

For educators teaching art history in high school or at the university level, Art History Teaching Resources has put together an excellent course outline on the topic of Disability in Art History with lesson plans and activity prompts.

Flock, Elizabeth. “Burnout is rampant among doctors and nurses. Can the arts help?”, 5 November 2019.

Lesser, Casey. “Why Med Schools Are Requiring Art Classes,” Artsy, 21 August 2017.

Lesser, Casey. “Looking at Art Could Help Med Students Become Better Doctors.” Artsy, 27 November 2018.

Loeser, John D. and Schatman, Michael E. (2017) “Chronic pain management in medical education: A Disastrous Omission, Postgraduate Medicine, 129:3,332-335,DOI: 10.1080/00325481.2017.1297668


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