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Essay: How the Arts & Humanities Illuminate the Study of Medicine

Julie Potter, UMMS Class of 2008
Member (2005-2006), HIM Collection Committee

Sometimes, a picture is worth a thousand words, even if it is infused with Hollywood melodrama. After teaching such concepts as the physiology of V/Q mismatch, the genetic basis of hemophilia, and the cell layers composing the epidermis, Drs. Cristian and Anca Stefan gathered the first year medical school class to test-drive a relatively new teaching tool at UMass - integrating film into the study of medicine. As we watched while actors tried their best to simulate asthma (wheezing erroneously on inspiration rather than expiration) and hemophiliacs bled dramatically from their noses (an unlikely manifestation of hemophilia), we saw with newly-trained eyes how art tries to mimic the reality of illness. Sure, we learned that actors often don't get it quite right. But in watching these clips, not only did we have an opportunity to show off our newly garnered knowledge (and review for the upcoming exam), but we also got to see other, less scientific representations of illness.

Viewing illness through many different lenses is a critical part of our medical education. People everywhere, whether or not they have studied the etiology of disease, must come to terms with how the body works - and how it often fails to work. In medical school, we categorize symptoms, make spreadsheets of pathogens, and prioritize diagnostic tests to try to get our minds around the vast array of diseases that can take over the body. In the art world, some use theater to dramatize illness and others compose stories or poems to relate the experience of grappling with disease.

The Physician, Patient and Society course provides a window onto written representations of illness by providing excerpts of letters and poetry in our course book. When it comes to the difficult themes of death and dying, for example, it is valuable to step back from mortality statistics and 5-year survival rates to read a poem about how one views their body in the final stages of a terminal illness.

Dr. Susan Gagliardi's recommended reading list, which complements the first year Mind, Brain, and Behavior course, serves a similar purpose. Hearing Oliver Sachs describe his patient's bizarre behaviors illustrates neurologic syndromes far better than a list of symptoms ever could.

If we want to better understand how the cellular processes that fill our textbooks actually impact human life, and perhaps come closer to understanding how our patients process illness, the humanities provide useful resources from which to learn.