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Art in medicine: observation without interpretation

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2017 - Autumn


Ghostly synth-pop riffs fill a chilly, spare room in the basement of Yale’s School of Art. It’s 6 p.m. on a winter Sunday, and 15 students from Yale’s School of Medicine (and a staff member from Yale College) have come to sketch nude models and receive instruction from two MFA candidates. “You Look Certain (I’m Not Sure)” off Mount Kimbie’s 2017 album “Love What Survives” plays in the background as attendees cycle through minute-long warm-up exercises, focusing on the motion of moving charcoal over paper, practicing the principles of proportionality, representing the human form.

This is an event with the Medical School’s Program for Humanities in Medicine. Part of a series of classes and events that are part of a nationwide, decades-long effort to reinforce components of the medical education that can be overlooked during science- or procedure-heavy courses, the Program for Humanities in Medicine provides medical students with encounters wherein the human form appears in a different context from that which students are accustomed to. Sue Xiao, a fourth year medical student, has organized the evening.

Xiao has a background in art from college and high school, and it is part of her life. Beyond her personal connection to painting and drawing, though, she feels that art can help rejuvenate and connect artists to subjects—a process from which medical professionals can benefit. “These days people are talking about health care burnout and the plummet of empathy after medical school,” Xiao says. “Personally, I have found that drawing the human figure, whether it be in a studio, from a park bench on a summer’s day, or even during grand rounds all help balance me, and remind me of why I entered medicine in the first place—to help people.”

Kent O’Conner and Kathryn Kerr are the professional painters at the class and MFA candidates at Yale’s School of Art, but everyone’s brought some degree of skill, some talent or passion for challenging how they visualize the world around them. O’Conner and Kerr move between the medical students, examining sketches, offering encouragement and suggestions.

The day’s task is to hone students’ faculties of perception, and encourage a form of observation that does not depend on interpretation. By interacting with subjects outside a clinical setting, students have an unusual chance to revisit their relationship to a set of mechanisms that are crucial to gauging patient health.

Katherine Epstein, a fourth year student who attends Program for Humanities in Medicine events, believes that they offer a unique opportunity to counterbalance an education that emphasizes efficient analysis. Moreover, with repeated evaluations of unhealthy patients, doctors can become numb and jaded over time: “In medical school, you start by learning about the healthy body. Then you learn about diseases. As you advance, you become more comfortable with pathology, and more interested in dysfunction,” said Epstein. “I think anyone with significant exposure to disease develops a kind of resistance to it, but it comes at a cost. It can be more difficult to appreciate health. This helps me remember that the body is beautiful.”

“Medical schools have changed in the last hundred years,” says O’Conner after the class. “A hundred years ago, they might have studied the human body from cadavers. Now, students can observe live models.”

The course lasts two hours, with short breaks for the students to examine everyone’s sketches and critique techniques. The first portion of the class consists of the models assuming increasingly lengthy poses, from one minute to twenty minutes long. The second portion includes two poses of a half hour each, giving the students time to realize more complete artistic works. Between poses, O’Conner and Kerr offer insights and guide discussion.

Some students, like Xiao, come to the class with an extensive artistic background, and quickly produced authoritative and appealing pieces of art. Others with less experience focus on a specific element to practice or improve.

The course takes medical students out of their comfort zone, and allows them permission to explore an area where they might not be the best. “There’s a proclivity to do the sketch right, not to make any mistakes, but making mistakes is a great way to learn,” says Kerr.

The faculty member who directs the Program for the Humanities in Medicine agrees. “The process of drawing with a live model may make some participants uncomfortable, and that discomfort is something to learn from, too” says Anna Reisman, MD. “I think students also increase their own sensitivity to the power they wield with their gaze.”

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