Pre-med students at Baylor University are scrutinizing art by such greats as Rembrandt and Picasso in search of dilated pupils and jaundiced skin. Besides “diagnosing” the people in works of art, the students are creating self-portraits to gain empathy for future patients, designing art for a clinic, and doing some visual detective work by studying mystery paintings from Rembrandt’s time to argue whether Rembrandt – or a copycat – created the art.
The students are even, in a manner of speaking, in stitches. That happens in a class in which they use sutures and staples to fashion baskets of jute and yarn. They are doing it all in the name of good medicine – honing creative thinking, dexterity, and observation skills that will serve them well in careers as doctors, nurses, therapists, and healthcare administrators.
Baylor University is venturing into new territory with an ambitious undergraduate class called Visual Arts and Healing. The class is intended to serve as a model for other universities and medical schools and explores virtually every way art has a bearing on medicine, its creators say.
“What Baylor’s doing is pretty amazing,” said mixed-media artist Mindy Nierenberg, a consultant with the Society for the Arts in Healthcare in Washington, D.C.
The role of imagination and creativity in medicine has grabbed increasing attention in recent years. Some health professionals remain skeptical, but a growing number of medical schools are exploring medical humanities programs that include literature and medicine, philosophy of medicine, history of medicine and religion, and medicine.
Baylor is a step ahead by offering a medical humanities major at the undergraduate level. And the latest addition – an “art immersion” course – will quicken the pace even more, Nierenberg predicted.
“Having students make art increases their creative thinking skills,” she said. “The way medical students are trained is very linear. You come up with a problem and solution. Artists have multiple paths. Thinking outside the box is what’s needed.”
The class is the brainchild of Dr. Karen Pope, a senior lecturer in art history at Baylor, and Linda Bostwick, a family nurse practitioner in health services at Baylor.
They were inspired by the finding that the arts “comfort, console, and sustain” patients, uncovered in a survey of the country’s hospitals done by Americans for the Arts, the Society for Arts in Healthcare and the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Heathcare Organizations.
David Windler, 21, of Bossier City, La., a senior medical humanities major at Baylor who plans to become a physician, said he is impressed by the course’s depth.
“I thought it was going to be art therapy from start to finish, but then they starting telling us about visual thinking strategies,” he said. “This can help you see a patient as a person and not a biological specimen. I think it also could be a good way to ground yourself, center yourself, before going on hospital rounds.”
Material adapted from Baylor University.