Focusing on Arts and Humanities to Develop Well-Rounded Physicians

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on

As science and medicine continually change, there has been a growing recognition that studying the arts and humanities may help medical students and physicians develop personal qualities that lead to deeper connections with their patients. For example, A 2008 study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that students who devoted more time to the arts and humanities during medical school had significantly higher levels of positive physician attributes like empathy, tolerance of ambiguity, wisdom and emotional intelligence while at the same time reporting lower levels of adverse traits like burnout, physical fatigue, and emotional exhaustion.

Arts and humanities are often pushed to the side in medical school curriculum, yet integrating these two fields presents a strong case for bringing the left and right brains back together—for the health of the patient and the physician. The study reported that students’ ability to make accurate observations increased by 38% after taking a visual arts class. In a forum hosted by the Association of American Medical Colleges, medical educators shared how they brought the arts and humanities into their institutions. It was found that visual arts can help physicians develop the skills to perform physical exams and enhance critical thinking and collaboration skills. Practicing improvisational theater can help students learn to think on their feet and prepare for unexpected conversations. Writing and reflecting help physicians improve the quality of attentive listening to better absorb, interpret and be moved by the stories of illness.

While there has been growth in humanities curriculum, there has not been a sustained, across-the-board incorporation into most medical schools. So far, a few schools have started to shift this narrative. The Medicine and Humanities Scholarly Inquiry of Thomas Jefferson University encourages student engagement in the arts and humanities by fostering essential skills related to healthcare; these include observation, critical thinking, self-reflection and empathy. The Creative Premedical Scholars Program at Tulane University offers an elective course in medical humanities, art-based community service, and early acceptance to undergraduate honor students in arts and humanities majors.

As medical practice shifts from individualized care towards collaborative care, the patient–physician connection remains the thing that really defines what it is to be a physician. Bringing the humanities and arts into medical education is one way to help physicians form deeper connections with patients, maintain joy in medicine, and develop empathy and resiliency.

This story was not covered by corporate news sources, but was published in other university magazines and Psychology Today.


Tulane University, “Arts and Humanities in Medical School Promote Empathy and Inoculate against Burnout.” EurekAlert!, January 30, 2018.

Sarah Mann, “Focusing on Arts, Humanities to Develop Well-Rounded Physicians.” AAMCNews, August 15, 2017.

Student Researcher: Eris Heim (San Francisco State University)
Faculty Evaluator:
Kenn Burrows (San Francisco State University)