Creative pursuits bring fresh perspective to medicine, healing

The Arts & Humanities in Health & Medicine program brings different ways of thinking and knowing, to build a new vision of health

By Sasha Roeder Mah

The Arts & Humanities in Health & Medicine (AHHM) program was born in 2006, to encourage development of skilled, reflexive and compassionate health professionals who can foster relationships between the arts, humanities, social sciences and medicine. AHHM is the second office of its kind in Canada. Says director Pamela Brett-MacLean: "I believe the importance of an office like mine is to bring a different disciplinary perspective, different ways of thinking and knowing, to support questioning that can lead to new visions for medicine. Arts and humanities are always asking philosophical questions about who we are, how to live, how to be together, and it's helpful to create a formal space that recognizes and welcomes those who want to ask those questions."

Today, AHHM's reach extends to students, faculty, practitioners and the broader community. 

Student life

"Using the arts, you engage many more aspects of the collective intelligence of the group," says Brett-MacLean. "It's not just a cognitive exercise; it makes difficult discussions more human-centred and engages the emotion."

Students in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry are encouraged to experience that 'collective intelligence' with an array of electives. Communicating Care: A Theatre-Based Approach offers an interactive and impactful 12 hours practising presence and mindful attention to patients through experiential theatre exercises. The Art of Observation takes students to the Art Gallery of Alberta to cultivate clear, unbiased visual observation, a skill that is crucial to practising medicine. Spirituality and Health pairs students with hospital chaplains, encouraging them to understand that caring for spiritual needs is an integral part of holistic health care.

Brett-MacLean is particularly proud of the three-week open-study electives that draw students from other medical schools across North America in their third and fourth years.
Along with enthusiastic participation in curricular offerings, students in the faculty have followed the lead of AHHM and created their own committee, which Brett-MacLean expects will create a number of initiatives, including the existing book club, which welcomes incoming medical students.
Students also shared personal stories about the importance of a humanistic approach to health care at an AHHM booth at the faculty's second annual Festival of Health last spring. The idea was born from a special public presentation by former interim dean and AHHM co-director Verna Yiu (now CEO and President of Alberta Health Services) about the power of storytelling in health care.

Real-world applications

At the helm at AHS, Yiu has carried the values of AHHM into the community with a unique storytelling program that brings complex diagnoses into the realm of the deeply human. Patients and loved ones are invited to share on the AHS Youtube channel their stories of illness, treatment, recovery and death, putting a human face to what can be complicated medical issues. "We need to understand the personal situation to provide holistic care," stresses Yiu. "When we don't have the complete story and we only focus on the technology, therapeutics and diagnostics, we lose the bigger picture."
Like storytelling, visual art can be a powerful tool in humanizing medicine. School of Dentistry associate professor Minn Yoon wanted to support patients with highly invasive head and neck cancers, beyond traditional medical treatment. Along with Brett- MacLean and an interdisciplinary team of researchers, she paired local artists with patients to create an exhibit that in early 2017 began its life in an Edmonton art gallery and, most recently, spent the summer at Chicago's International Museum of Surgical Science. Through painting, sketch, sculpture and video, FLUX: Responding to Head and Neck Cancer offers an intimate portrait of the ways in which this illness can turn a life upside down. Collaborating with a visual artist to illustrate the effects of her illness was an unexpected gift for participant Kimberley Flowers, recovering from tongue cancer. "The art helped me understand experiences I felt that there simply aren't words for," she says.

On Brett-MacLean's wish list for the future is more-stable funding for programs like these. "It's good for all of us," she says, "for students, for patients, for the community."

All the world's a stage

Twice a year, theatre director David Diamond visits the U of A from Vancouver to work with various programs within the faculty. He facilitates theatre-based group workshops around wellness, team functioning, moral distress- whatever topic is most pressing, says Brett-MacLean.

Together with the Division of Community Engagement, the Indigenous Health Initiatives Program and numerous other community partners, AHHM also helps organize performances of Diamond's Theatre for Living interactive play, šxʷʔam̓ət (home). Created and performed by a mixed Indigenous and non-Indigenous cast and production team, the play about reconciliation has been performed at the Boyle Street Community League and webcast on campus in the Medical Sciences Building.

This inclusive, open and highly creative approach to a complex and painful issue invites students- who need no artistic background to participate-to stretch beyond their comfort zone and think about their future role as medical professionals in advancing reconciliation.

Responses from students have shown just how helpful it was to use the lens of theatre. Catherine Deschenes, MD '21, says: "It helped me-and I think it helped quite a few audience members-to see more concrete ways to enable reconciliation." Aulora Oleynick, MD '20, agrees. ""šxʷʔam̓ət was a unique and powerful experience that not only allowed the audience to view issues surrounding reconciliation, but to deeply engage with the issues."