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Health Humanities - Artists & Doctors

History, and contemporary literature, show us that the world of medicine has always been populated with those who branch out into various fields of study. To be very frank, those who have studied medicine in the past almost always participate in the humanities as well. Be it philosphy, history, astronomy or the visual arts, the figures in our collective past have never been confined to a single discipline - though they might be famous for their work in one field in particular. In the contemporary era we see a division between studies that was never the case in the previous generations. Look to any college campus and the division between the STEM majors and the Humanities majors is very clear, they hardly cross paths unless an elective is required for graduation.

Multiple studies have displayed the very real fact that students only benefit from a robust and diverse curriculum. For example, pupils who participate in music lessons are better in mathematics, as music is a langauge of whole numbers and fractions. By educating medical students & doctors in the appraisal of art (learning how to identify line, shadow, hue, and value) they in turn can apply that skill to the on-sight diagnosing of patients. Following these technical skills, there is also the realization that a culture's art mirrors its values. By comprehnding a work of art you are allowing yourself to learn a little bit about where another human being comes from, why that piece was created, why someone else has a positive or negative reaction to it, and so on. Understand the art and you make a connection with the people.  

“The Indian Doctor”, Ave Moya, San Ildefonso Pueblo 

Paperboard & acrylic paint, c.a. 1950

(Source: Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian)

The Renaissance Person

According to Merriam-Webster, the term "Renaissance Man" has the following definition:

Noun: a person who has wide interests and is expert in several areas

The Encyclopedia Britannica has this to say:

"Renaissance man, also called Universal Man, Italian Uomo Universale, an ideal that developed in Renaissance Italy from the notion expressed by one of its most-accomplished representatives, Leon Battista Alberti (1404–72), that “a man can do all things if he will.” The ideal embodied the basic tenets of Renaissance humanism, which considered man the centre of the universe, limitless in his capacities for development, and led to the notion that men should try to embrace all knowledge and develop their own capacities as fully as possible."

All knowledge is worth having. This phrase bears the weight of the centuries' old humanist perspective, at least in the notion of developing the self to the highest form possible. No one is an island, we all benefit from the advances of science as well as the arts.

7 Doctors Who Didn't Sacrifice Their Creativity for Medicine

Stephanie Cajigal; Rebecca E. Cooney, PhD, MedScape, July 1, 2016.

The physicans in this list, including surgeons, anesthesiologists, cardiologists and more, found complementary inspiration in both their scientific and artistic fields. Abstract paintings that emote the experience of a hectic hospital, poems that speak to endless empathy, photography of the rural landscape in which patients live, and novels reaching out to inoculate young people against bigotry are just a few examples of the creativity to be found in practitioners of medicine. 

Contemporary art in medicine: the Cleveland Clinic art collection

Finkel J. Contemporary art in medicine: the Cleveland Clinic art collection. Cardiovasc Diagn Ther. 2011 Dec;1(1):71-5. doi: 10.3978/j.issn.2223-3652.2011.09.01. PMID: 24282686; PMCID: PMC3839134.

Abstract: "Fine art is good medicine. It comforts, elevates the spirit, and affirms life and hope. Art in the healthcare setting, combined with outstanding care and service, creates an environment that encourages healing and supports the work of medical professionals. As one of the world's great medical centers, Cleveland Clinic has always included the arts in its healing environment. The four founders and subsequent leadership encouraged artistic and musical expression by employees. Distinguished artworks have long hung on the walls. In 1983, an Aesthetics Committee was officially formed at Cleveland Clinic to address issues of art and design in Cleveland Clinic facilities."

Art in a pandemic: a digital gallery

Hannah Stower & Marianne Guennot / 15 March 2021

"The pandemic has been a source of a sometimes overwhelming sense of uncertainty. We asked our readers to share how they have used art to document their experiences."

Robin Williams in "Dead Poet's Society" (1989)

Physicians, Painters & Poets

Commentary on The Creation of Adam

Acosta, L. (2023). Academic Medicine, 98 (4), 457-457. doi: 10.1097/ACM.0000000000004721.

"The neurological examination is part of the art of medicine, but it is not something I had ever likened it to a piece of fine art, much less a 16th-century masterpiece. Then, one day, after countless administrations of cerebellar testing using the finger-to-nose test, I was struck by the similarity between my outstretched index finger paired to the index finger of the patient and the paired, outstretched fingers of God and Adam in Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam."


What Clinicians Can Learn From Poetry

Zainab Mabizari, MD, OpMed, June, 23 2021

And Internal Medicine REsident reflect on the power of poetry within the world of medicine. "The power of poetry’s use in medicine is in the way it speaks to the humanity of all of us; in poetry is the unparalleled ability to cut through medical jargon and speak to our hopes, wonderment, grief, joy, and even anger in the face of illness. The use of poetry in medicine has been documented as far back as the 12th century – physician Ibn Sina wrote a poem of 1326 verses that summarized medical knowledge of the Islamic world that then became the main method of dissemination of medical knowledge into medieval Europe. Currently, poetry is increasingly incorporated into medical education through medical humanities and narrative medicine – the idea that literature can be used as a medium to engage in the practices of attention, affiliation, and representation to encourage the empathetic and competent practice of healing."


Creativity in Medicine: A Burned Out Physician Turns to Art

Anokhi Saklecha, Op-Med, August 3, 2017.

"Dr. Matthew Wetschler is an emergency medicine physician-artist based in northern California. Alongside practicing medicine, Wetschler uses acrylic paint and plaster to create medically-inspired artistic pieces." In this interview, Dr. Wetschler speaks about his battle with depression and burnout, and how the inclusion of the humanities helped him to broaden his perspectives when treating patients.


Embracing the Artist, Becoming a Doctor

Svetlana Dotsenko, Huff Post, July 29, 2017.

In this interview with a new resident (Kimberly MM Isakov, MD) the winding path of seemingly disparate interests come together. "Studying photographs improved her eye for detail - she was able to spot abnormalities on x-rays faster than before. And at an interview for radiology residency positions, Kim connected with her potential supervisor over her love of German art and European fashion; the interviewer actually had to covertly double check her resume, making sure that her college degree was indeed in chemistry, and not in art history. Interests outside of medicine make doctors human – and ultimately help Kim connect with her medical colleagues and patients on a deeper level."  



  • By: Joshua Schor, M.D., 
  • Illustrated by: Natalie Koscal, M.A. and Kim Knoper, M.A.
  • In this short comic, a doctor tells the story of a harrowing train ride where he and a conductor kept an overdose victim alive. He relfects on the emotional toll of such a shocking emergency occuring en route to a family gathering, and how the actions of a civilian revived not only the victim but his faith in the power of healing - and himself.

Benefits of the Arts

NIH Medline Plus Magazine

NIH-Kennedy Center initiative explores ‘Music and the Mind’


“A growing number of reports are appearing where music therapy has provided benefit to individuals with medical conditions as diverse as autism, chronic pain, and stroke,” he (Dr. Francis Collins) explains. “But there is so much we still don’t know about the effects of music in health broadly, and this partnership will help us to explore this uncharted territory.”


AMA Journal of Ethics: Illuminating the Art of Medicine

The Use of Visual Arts as a Window to Diagnosing Medical Pathologies

Bramstedt, Katrina A. PhD, MA , Aug 2016.

"Observation is a key step preceding diagnosis, prognostication, and treatment. Careful patient observation is a skill that is learned but rarely explicitly taught. Furthermore, proper clinical observation requires more than a glance; it requires attention to detail. In medical school, the art of learning to look can be taught using the medical humanities and especially visual arts such as paintings and film. Research shows that such training improves not only observation skills but also teamwork, listening skills, and reflective and analytical thinking." 


Journal of General Internal Medicine

Formal Art Observation Training Improves Medical Students’ Visual Diagnostic Skills

Naghshineh, Sheila M.D., et al., 2008 Jul; 23(7): 991–997.

"Despite evidence of inadequate physical examination skills among medical students, teaching these skills has declined. One method of enhancing inspection skills is teaching “visual literacy,” the ability to reason physiology and pathophysiology from careful and unbiased observation. Objective: To improve students’ visual acumen through structured observation of artworks, understanding of fine arts concepts and applying these skills to patient care."


Art and Medicine: Hear how art education improved nurses’ clinical observation skills and strengthened empathy, which became valuable tools during the COVID-19 pandemic