Why Should Art Matter in Medical Education?

Columbia Medical Students Explore Art and Narrative Forms


By Joseph Neighbor

In the Frick Collection’s West Gallery, 25 P&S students intently study a massive, 17th century oil painting, Claude Lorrain’s “Sermon on the Mount.”

“Now I’d like you to switch seats,” says Rika Burnham, the museum’s head of education and co-founder of the June evening’s event, Art Matters. “I encourage you to share your thoughts on what you see.”

One student mentions the distant village toward the right of the frame, in the shadow of Mount Tabor. Another mentions the shepherds gathered on a hill in the foreground, lit by the sun. Ms. Burnham draws their attention to Jesus, surrounded by the 12 apostles, partially obscured by trees, a tiny figure in the landscape’s immense expanse. “We wonder how he could be heard,” she says. “He’s hard to see, hard to hear, hard to find—like all faith.”

At the same time, in the museum’s library, Art Matters co-founder Deepthiman Gowda, MD, associate professor of medicine and director of clinical practice in the Program in Narrative Medicine, leads a discussion on the presence and pleasure of viewing works of art with a group of 19.

Such discussions, though fascinating, might seem extraneous to the education of aspiring physicians. But Dr. Gowda sees it differently. “We’re told that art and science are different,” he says. “But medical practice is about interpreting very complex and nuanced details—the same way you’d interpret a piece of art. It requires an ability to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty. Creativity is an essential part of being a clinician. Sometimes the solutions we need to solve the problems of today and tomorrow can’t be found in a textbook. We’re naming creativity as an explicit part of delivering quality health care.”

Now in its fourth year, Art Matters is a collaboration between P&S and the Frick Collection that brings first-year medical students to the museum for a night of art education, food, and socializing. (The link between the two institutions is far older, in fact: Henry Clay Frick II, longtime trustee and board president of the museum, was a P&S graduate who taught clinical obstetrics at Columbia and practiced oncology at Presbyterian Hospital.)

The evening is the culmination of the students’ narrative medicine seminars, a core requirement that places students in courses ranging in topics from dance to drawing to the philosophy of death. “The basic idea is: How can we use literature, art, and other creative works to enhance our skills of attention?” says Dr. Gowda. “How can it help us generate and mediate conversations about health care?”

The term narrative medicine was coined by Rita Charon, MD, PhD, professor of medicine and executive director of the Program in Narrative Medicine. A physician and literary scholar, she created a curriculum at Columbia that emphasizes the importance of storytelling and communication in health care and methodologies that use the arts to hone skills of critical thinking and interpretation. In the narrative medicine seminars, students might read a poem together, for example, then analyze the poem’s mood, meaning, and word choice. At the end of the seminar, students are asked to write an essay or creative work that connects the narrative medicine seminar content to their clinical experiences.

“The topics touch on the anxieties of caring for another, or a sense of wonder and awe as they enter more deeply into medical practice or existential questions that arise in the course of caring for sick persons,” says Dr. Gowda. “Many essays are about the tumultuous, invigorating challenges of professional identity formation. They’re starting to feel like doctors, seeing how exciting that is, how daunting that is. It’s beautiful to see that transition.”

As the centerpiece of this year’s Art Matters event, six students read their compositions aloud to their peers and faculty in the Frick’s Music Room. By turns funny and introspective, the stories limned the thoughts of those whose professional training forces them to confront questions of life and death. Paula Rambarat’s piece narrated the thoughts of a student physician who tries to meditate but just can’t seem to be in the moment, thus missing a patient’s forced smile that could have helped diagnose depression. Neal Emery described the importance of asking quality questions and really listening when conducting a medical interview, as each conversation is a “pinhole into an interior world.” Trae Robison described a dance piece he had choreographed to Katy Perry’s “Wide Awake” that aimed to capture the horror and hope of a person afflicted with a debilitating muscular disorder. James Belarde invited two fellow students to the stage to read his script about a 90-year-old patient and a fumbling medical intern brought together by reveries of their little sisters, winning big laughs from the crowd. Nicole Curatola described the loss of a friend and two grandparents and the empathy and respect for “the intangible power of life” it imbued in a student who “doesn’t yet have the medical skills to push death away.”

Read the narrative medicine compositions read by Neal Emery at the Art Matters event.

Below: View a slide show of photos taken at Art Matters by Amelia Panico.