How Can Arts Education Benefit Med Students?

If you’ve been looking at medical schools recently, you may already know that many U.S. medical schools have begun encouraging some study of the arts and humanities in their curriculums. Though it may seem that being able to dissect great works of literature is less important than being able to carefully dissect a human cadaver in anatomy, medical schools now argue that an arts education teaches students to treat their “whole” patients, taking into account the patients’ socioeconomic and cultural contexts when deciding upon courses of treatment.

If you’re headed to medical school, consider taking some arts classes to better prepare you for the human element of medicine. Check out these reasons that an arts education can be useful to you as a medical student:

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1. Much of medicine is analytical, and arts disciplines teach you to approach a problem from critical angles other than the traditional scientific ones

From your science classes, you’ve probably learned to view and solve medical problems in a biological way. You understand that you cure appendicitis with an appendectomy and cholecystitis with a cholecystectomy—but the arts can teach you to solve medical problems not just from a biological viewpoint, but through emotional, social, economic, and other viewpoints as well. The arts can train you to understand how a patient may have acquired a condition and what can be done in addition to traditional medical intervention that would help the patient’s condition improve.

2. An arts education familiarizes you with the context in which illness occurs

The traditional medical model saw medical problems as occurring within a narrow biological cause-effect pattern. However, an arts education can help you understand that illness also occurs in the broader context of a person’s emotional, spiritual, intellectual, social, and economic life. Whereas the traditional scientific model will recognize that a person develops a tumor from abnormal cells, the arts allows you to recognize the lifestyle factors that may have led to the growth of those cells. This perspective may also allow you to treat not only the cells, but perhaps to teach the patient to make lifestyle changes that will prevent abnormal growth in the future. Illness does not simply occur in a biological vacuum, and understanding the arts can help you consider the multitude of factors that are relevant in a patient’s disease progression, as well as the medical treatment regimen.

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3. The arts may help connect you with the emotional aspect of medicine, allowing you to better sympathize with patients

It’s easy throughout medical education to reduce patients to their illnesses, but a background in the arts can help prevent you from doing so. The term “bedside manner” has long been thrown around in medicine, but recently, medical schools have started to give more weight to the development of bedside manner in students. The arts, whether critically analyzing literature or experiencing different forms of dance, can help connect you to the emotions of the human condition and help inform how you see patients. In an arts context, no longer is there just a “broken leg in bed number three,” but rather, “a man who fell down his porch stairs this morning and is now in deep pain due to a fracture.” The arts can help you cultivate deeper emotion and develop a strong bedside manner, which is indispensable for a future medical practitioner.