Medical Humanities Course Develops Students’ Empathy
October 20, 2020
Lessons in art, music and storytelling aim to expand medical students' skills in observation,
communication, empathy and self-awareness.
First-year Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) students at PCOM South Georgia are being challenged to use their creativity to learn skills applicable to the medical
field. Through a newly developed medical humanities course, the students are taking
part in pottery and music classes, art lessons, storytelling and small group narrative
Using art to ‘see’
During the first class of the course, “Portraits of Compassion,” students were taught
by Barbara Parker-Bell, PsyD ‘08, director of art therapy programs at Florida State
University. During the workshop, participants learned the art of blind contour drawing.
Dr. Parker-Bell explained that blind contouring helps medical students take the time
to “see” the details.
“Blind contour drawing is a process where the outlines of the drawing subject are
drawn without the artist looking at the paper,” Dr. Parker-Bell said. “This process
helps develop the artist’s eye and attention to detail and builds hand-eye coordination.
The students learn how to look and see detailed visual information, while trusting
their hand to record it. Observational and relational skills learned through the artistic
process are considered in the context of the healthcare provider and healthcare recipient
During a recent session, the class studied portraits that relate to the healthcare
field and discussed how patients respond to being accurately seen as whole people
by their providers. Following this review and discussion, students created contour
portraits of each other to experience the portrait/subject relationship as well as
the contour drawing approach.
Evelyn Faith White (DO ’24) drew blind contours of herself, a classmate and an object
in her home. She said she appreciated the opportunity to slow down and pay attention
“The experience engaged my sense of sight, exercised my hand-eye coordination and
compelled me to become reflective, which are all important to do as a medical student
and future physician,” she said. “This experience was not about accuracy, but about
intently looking and seeing. I am grateful for the chance to integrate art therapy
into my studies. The human form is one of the most beautiful pieces of art, and our
profession is often aptly called the art of medicine because, like artists, what we
do in our work is directly related to what we observe. This course has taught me how
to truly slow down to look and understand, not just assume knowledge from previous
The experiences are led by faculty members from Valdosta State University, Abraham
Baldwin Agricultural College, Albany State University and Florida State University.
Narrative medicine helps students ‘hear’
In addition to the hands-on experiences, students participate in small group narrative
medicine sessions hosted by PCOM staff and faculty and learn to take a reflective
approach to literature and art. Ruth Conboy, DNP, LPC, counselor at PCOM, leads the sessions and has a passion for
encouraging students to reflect through non-judgmental exercises. During her sessions,
students read a literature passage or study a piece of artwork and then participate
in a four-minute prompted writing session. One of such prompts was for students to write about what they carried with them to
Below are student-written responses:
Student writing response #1
A hopeful and calm demeanor yet a stressful mind A torch to carry For those left behind
The ones that are gone but never forgotten I carry them with me now that I got in
Student writing response #2
I carried the pride and hope of my family. The weight of the fear of failure. The strength of what I have overcome. The dreams of who I will help. The nightmares of who I will lose. The legacy my father has laid before me. The faith that He will sustain me.
“The goal is for the students to come in with a fresh set of eyes and ears,” Dr. Conboy
said. “They take in the text or artwork and write about what stands out to them. Different
things stick out to different people, similar to when these students are in patient
rooms with their medical team. It’s important to hear other peoples’ perspectives
because they may pick up on things that the other physician doesn’t.”
While there are clearly defined course objectives for the class, Dr. Conboy said her
true goal is for students to build a community with their colleagues in a way that
they normally wouldn’t and to take time to stop and reflect on their personal journeys.
“We need to equip our medical students with the tools to deal with the pain and stressors
of the medical field just as much as we need to teach them the science of medicine,”
Medical humanities course objectives
The medical humanities course aims to:
improve observation and communication skills and tolerance for ambiguity through the
close examination and discussion of literature and visual art;
develop greater compassion and empathy by working with various populations in non-clinical
settings allowing people to be seen as more than just their illness or disease;
enhance history taking skills by listening to and documenting a community member’s
“story” increase self-awareness about one’s emotions, assumptions, thought process and behavior
patterns through reflective writing exercises and small group discussions, and;
develop a greater appreciation for the perspectives of others and for one’s biases
through various creative experiences.
Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine (PCOM) extended its commitment to the
Southeast by establishing PCOM South Georgia, an additional teaching location in Moultrie, Georgia. PCOM South Georgia offers both
a full, four-year medical program leading to the Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO)
degree and a Master of Science in Biomedical Sciences degree. PCOM is a private, not-for-profit
institution which trains professionals in the health and behavioral sciences fields.
Joining PCOM Georgia in Suwanee in helping to meet the healthcare needs of the state,
PCOM South Georgia focuses on educating physicians for the South Georgia region. The
medical campus, which welcomed its inaugural class of medical students in August 2019,
has received accreditation from the American Osteopathic Association's Commission
on Osteopathic College Accreditation. For more information, visit pcom.edu/southgeorgia or call 229-668-3110.
For more information, contact: Jordan Roberts Public Relations and Social Media Manager Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Office:229-668-3198 | Cell:229-873-2003