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The Role of Arts and Humanities in Physician Development: From Fun to Fundamental

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Academic medicine must define, build, and continuously improve upon the practices and environments that allow physicians to provide optimal care for their patients, to collaborate with their fellow health care professionals, and to care for themselves. A growing evidence base suggests that learning experiences that integrate arts and humanities within curricula may lead to a variety of important learning outcomes. These include skills-based outcomes such as honing observation and interpretation skills, relational outcomes such as empathy, communication, and teamwork, and transformational outcomes at the level of professional identity formation and advocacy. The arts can spark joy and enhance renewal. The range of the humanities and arts that can inform medical learning and, ultimately, patient care is quite vast and includes literature, philosophy, ethics, history, religion, creative and reflective writing, visual arts, music, media, film, and theater. There is more to be understood about the qualities of the arts that facilitate learning, pedagogical strategies that support engagement with the arts, and ways to translate arts and humanities–based learning experiences to clinical practice.

What has the AAMC done so far?

To better delineate the current landscape of the arts and humanities in medicine and determine how best to approach a broader effort to integrate them, in July 2017, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) jointly held the Thought Leaders Forum

In 2019, a Request for Proposals for a systematic scoping review on how the humanities and arts are being used toward the development of healthcare professionals has been disseminated to academic researchers in the field of health professions education, humanities, and/or arts education, for a robust and broad-view synthesis of the current evidence and efforts to integrate arts and humanities into medical education curricula. The research team was identified in March 2019. Read more about the team (PDF)

A new Humanities and Arts Integration Committee was specifically charged to:

  • Recommend a statement of value and commitment toward integration of humanities and the arts in the professional development of physicians—particularly in the areas of resilience, communication, tolerance for ambiguity, clinical skills, empathic and patient-centered care, and others that may be identified by the scoping review and environmental scan;

  • Examine the linkage and development of health humanities undergraduate and graduate degree programs and how this emerging field will impact medical education; 

  • Propose strategies for achieving integration of humanities and arts across the educational and professional development experience of students pursuing the M.D. degree and physician faculty in practice; and

  • Consider the means and consequences of stating this need and commitment on our member institutions.

What's next?

  • An AAMC monograph will include a statement of need and a commitment to integrate the humanities and arts in the education of physicians. This will emerge from the scoping review findings and build upon the recommendations from two NASEM reports: The Integration of the Humanities and Arts with Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Higher Education and Taking Action Against Clinician Burnout.
  • A Digital Guidebook to aid educators in their efforts to begin integrating the arts and humanities into their curricular efforts.
  • A small grants program to advance educational scholarship (particularly in assessment of outcomes) and the further integration of arts and humanities into medical education.
  • A professional development pilot program to support the scholarship of program evaluation and assessment of outcomes resulting from educational interventions and programs that integrate the arts and humanities. 

This work is funded, in part by the Josiah Macy Jr Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in publications and related programming or products do not necessarily represent those of these two organizations. 

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