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The Healing Arts

UB’s Center for Medical Humanities promotes empathy in physicians-to-be

UB medical school student's sketch of a live
model during life drawing class.

Photo: Douglas Levere

By Ann Whitcher Gentzke

For Nina Paroff, the link between art and medicine is clear. “We not only interpret the images we see,” says the second-year medical student, who visited Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery last fall as part of a course called Clinical Practice of Medicine. “We also come to appreciate observation itself as an art and as a subjective practice.”

Paroff participates in UB’s Center for Medical Humanities as a member of its student advisory committee. Established in 2013 as part of a growing trend among U.S medical schools to encourage more humanistic thinking amid mostly scientific training, the center incorporates arts-related content into the curriculum with complementary activities addressing a range of social and ethical topics. Directed by emerita professor of psychiatry Linda Pessar, the center exposes students to anthropology, ethics, film, history and literature in addition to art, all in an effort to foster greater awareness of patients as human beings.

UB medical school students sketch a live model during life drawing class.

UB medical school students sketch a live model during life drawing class.

To impart this awareness early on, first-year students are required to participate in a “Humanities Day.” Last fall, the day included sessions on poetry and medicine, poverty and health, and images of the nude. Students also could attend a life drawing class led by Ginny O’Brien of UB’s Anderson Gallery,* to sketch muscle groups and skeletal structures from a live model. “We wanted to give them an opportunity while dissecting in gross anatomy to see what that anatomy looks like in a living body,” says Pessar.

Pessar’s own presentations cover a wide slice of art history from the old masters to contemporary artists. Among the latter is Canadian artist Robert Pope (1956-1992), whose work depicts his 10 years with Hodgkin’s disease, as well as the experiences of other cancer patients. “I say to students, ‘Tell me about this picture. What do you see? What does it make you think about? What would you say to this person?’”

The humanities program has been well received by medical students, many of whom initially lacked formal arts training. The reason is simple, says Pessar. “Medical students, regardless of their backgrounds, are intelligent, curious, well-meaning and well-intended people. That’s being a humanist.”

*In addition to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and UB’s Anderson Gallery, the Burchfield Penney Art Center has played a substantial role in the Center for Medical Humanities.