Medical student Lori Lee works on a second casting of a piece featured in an exhibit at  Medicine and the Muse.

Medical student Lori Lee works on a second casting of a piece featured in an exhibit at Medicine and the Muse, a symposium that showcases creative works produced by the School of Medicine community. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Diagnosing the human condition: Stanford medical students add art, music and literature to studies

The Arts, Humanities & Medicine Program allows Stanford School of Medicine students to explore their artistic passions in conjunction with their medical studies.

First year Stanford medical student Meghan Galligan is passionate about neurobiology – and classical music.

As an undergrad, Galligan performed as a musical volunteer at nursing facilities. The experience, she said, gave her "great insight into the ways in which the arts can transcend many of the barriers – physical and otherwise – that patients face on a daily basis."

Now, she's integrating her seemingly disparate interests in her postgraduate work.

Thanks to a unique academic program at the Stanford University School of Medicine that combines humanities studies with medical scholarship, Galligan is incorporating both of her passions in ways that support her education and her patients.

Through the Biomedical Ethics and Medical Humanities Scholarly Concentration (BEMH), Galligan, a classically trained concert pianist and vocalist, has read King Lear and listened to Gustav Mahler compositions.

She also has read essays written by cancer survivors and heard a presentation by a man who made a documentary film about living with Huntington's Disease in "The Human Condition," a BEMH course taught by Dr. Larry Zaroff.

Galligan said the reflective nature of class discussions encouraged her to consider existential questions that her patients might face, such as, "How do I live my life and make a difference after I've been diagnosed with a serious illness?"

Of philosophers and physicians

The BEMH scholarly concentration is one component of the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics and the Arts, Humanities & Medicine Program, a medical school initiative designed to improve medical care by facilitating research, public events and academic programming at the intersections between the arts, humanities and medicine.

The aim, as described on the program website is to "enhance our understanding of the contextual meanings of illness, health care, and the human condition."

Doctors who are also creative writers discuss their novels and poetry in the Pegasus Physicians group. The annual Medicine and the Muse symposium showcases the creative works produced by the Stanford School of Medicine community. Visiting artists such as internationally recognized physician and poet Rafael Campo, have come to campus to share their personal and artistic experiences.

During the 2012 Medicine and the Muse symposium, held in April, medical students read their original poems and performed original dance and music works. An art exhibit showcased paintings and sculptures.

Galligan, who directed this year's program, said she got involved because she felt the event offers "a great window into the artistic lives within the walls of the medical community."

Arts, Humanities & Medicine Program Director Audrey Shafer, a professor of Anesthesia in the School of Medicine, said the outlets provide "a means for physicians, physicians-in-training, and health care workers to express the passions that help them gain a deeper understanding of medical education, clinical practice, and what it means to be human."

Through the examination of the ethical and humanistic dimensions of medical practice and research, BEMH students prepare for the complex challenges they will face in clinical and scientific settings.

"The concentration allows students to cross boundaries to create work that includes both medicine and bioscience as well as the arts and humanities" said Shafer.

Scholar support

The BEMH academic infrastructure also makes it possible for medical students interested in studying the arts, humanities or ethics to receive a Medical Scholars Research Program grant.

To date, students have investigated the impact of medical and technological advances; issues of health care access and public health policy; doctor-patient relationship and communication; end-of-life issues; medicine and the media; literature and medicine; medical anthropology; empathy and the experience of illness; and the arts and medicine.

Rather than distracting medical students from their rigorous studies, incorporating arts and humanities studies provides a valuable shift of perspective.

A traveling medical scholars grant enabled second-year medical student Pria Anand to reframe her perspective on her medical studies within the context of journalism, for example.

Last summer, Anand, who regularly writes short stories and expository pieces,  embarked on a medical journalism project on a Caribbean island where there's a high rate of genetic deafness.

During her stay, Anand wrote a narrative nonfiction work about the island's deaf community. She later wrote a short story about a traumatic accident that happened while she was on the island. In her opinion, her medical training played a huge part in both shaping and communicating the artistic message of the pieces.

"A big part of writing those two pieces was the process of rendering something medically complex into a description that was both poetic and palatable," Anand said. She added that the medical student experience of struggling to intimately understand the human body, both "when we're healthy, and the ways we suffer when we're ailing," prepared her for that kind of translation.

BEMH participant Lindsay Sceats, a first-year medical student who wrote poetry in the course "Creative Writing for Medical Students," already sees the positive influence of the humanities on her medical studies.

"Reading the work of other physicians' experiences and taking time to reflect on our own through writing helps keep the patient's story front and center as to why we are here," Sceats said.

For more news about the humanities at Stanford, visit the Human Experience: