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Medical Humanities Course Develops Students’ Empathy

October 20, 2020
Medical student uses a pencil to draw on a canvas.
Side by side images of a photo of a teapot decorated in pears and apples as well as a student's black and white drawing of the teapot.

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 medicine sessions.

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 relationship.”

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 to detail.

“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 exposure.”

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 medical school.

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,” she said.

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.

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  • About PCOM South Georgia

    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 or call 229-668-3110.

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