By Casey Lesser
“What the heck does Impressionist art have to do with medical communication?”
It’s a question that Dr. Michael Flanagan often gets after telling people about “Impressionism and the Art of Communication,” the seminar he teaches to fourth-year medical students at the Penn State College of Medicine.
In the course, students complete exercises inspired by 19th-century painters like Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet, ranging from observation and writing activities to painting in the style of said artists. Through the process, they learn to better communicate with patients by developing insights on subjects like mental illness and cognitive bias.
Flanagan’s seminar speaks to a broader trend in medical education, which has become pronounced over the past decade: More and more, medical schools in the U.S. are investing in curriculum and programming around the arts. Professors argue that engaging in the arts during medical school, whether through required courses or extracurricular activities, is valuable in developing essential skills that doctors need, like critical thinking and observational and communication skills, as well as bias awareness and empathy.
While it’s become more common in recent years, some medical schools have been incorporating the arts into their curriculum for decades. Penn State, for example, was the first medical school in the U.S. to develop its own department of medical humanities, which launched with the school in 1967. And many schools have long required students to take reflective writing courses or interdisciplinary classes that tap into social sciences or the arts as part of graduation requirements. This coursework is meant to address a wide swathe of real-world scenarios, from medical decision-making to ethics. And within this framework, there’s room for the performing arts, music, literature, and visual arts, as vehicles to deliver lessons. Continue reading.