Pamela Brett-MacLean's Passion for the Arts Led to the Birth of the U of A's Arts & Humanities in Health & Medicine Program

The long intellectual and creative journey that took Pamela Brett-MacLean from Ontario to Western Canada can be traced back to the mid-1990s.

01 May 2018

The long intellectual and creative journey that took Pamela Brett-MacLean from Ontario to Western Canada can be traced back to the mid-1990s.

At that time Brett-Maclean - now an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Director of the Arts & Humanities in Health & Medicine (AHHM) Program in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry - found that she was increasingly drawn to crossing disciplinary boundaries.

"My background is in Psychology. I completed my Master's degree in Community Psychology at the University of Guelph, and then worked for a time in the Department of Social and Evaluation Research at the Addiction Research Foundation in London, Ontario (now part of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health)," she explains.

"When I started working as a research associate in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Western Ontario, I began to seriously explore opportunities for pursuing interdisciplinary doctoral studies. However, an opportunity came up to work as a researcher in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of British Columbia, so off I went," she says. "After all, Vancouver has its charms!"

It was after her two-year contract at UBC expired that Brett MacLean had her big 'aha' moment. While pondering her career options, she discovered that UBC offered exactly what she was looking for: an Interdisciplinary Studies Graduate Program, the oldest program of its kind in Canada.

"I had been searching for just such a program and it was right there at UBC. My passions have always been around the arts, which are such a huge contributor to culture, communities, growing and learning, and there is also a health-promoting aspect to it. I often found that much of what I wanted to be involved in was relegated to the bottom of my 'in basket,' so to speak, so I decided to complete my PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies with a focus on arts and health," she says.

While still working on her dissertation, Brett-MacLean moved to Edmonton with her husband, who had accepted a position in Alberta's capital city with Health Canada. She was also drawn by Edmonton's vibrant arts community and concluded that the prairie city offered her the greatest opportunity to build her own career.

"I remember scanning cities across Canada for arts and health initiatives and discovered that there was a lot going on in Edmonton," she says.

In addition to a strong arts culture, among the many local arts and health related programs Brett-MacLean discovered were the Nina Haggerty Centre for the Arts, a collective of artists with developmental disabilities; iHuman, an arts-based organization directed to young people struggling with mental health and substance issues; and the McMullen Gallery and Artists on the Wards program at University of Alberta Hospital.

While working as a researcher in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Alberta, Brett-MacLean finished her PhD, which focused on people who had discovered the liberating, life-affirming value of the arts later in life, including a woman named Mary Topping. At 92, Topping continued to paint and sculpt and exhibit her work both on her own and as part of a collective of women artists she met when she enrolled in a visual arts degree program at the University of Alberta at 80 years of age.

"I met Mary by chance at the McMullen Gallery at University of Alberta Hospital. She was the guest instructor for the drop-in art session at the gallery that week and a number of her works were on exhibit. Rather than thinking about the latter part of life in terms of deficit and deterioration, Mary, similar to other artists I met who came to art in later life, exemplified the many ways that art offers a means for being fully alive through the things we love and the passions we follow."

Brett-MacLean's passion for the arts, how the arts intersect with health and medicine, and the role creative expression can play in nurturing well-rounded health professionals who exude empathy, caring and compassion, came to the attention of Thomas Marrie, then Dean of the University of Alberta's Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry.

"There was just one other medical humanities program in Canada at the time, at Dalhousie University, and as it happened, Dean Marrie came to the U of A from Dalhousie. He appreciated how much the medical humanities program seemed to matter to people there. So I spent three weeks organizing a program proposal for him," says Brett-MacLean.

The move paid off. In 2006, Brett-MacLean and Dr. Verna Yiu - who was appointed President and CEO of Alberta Health Services (AHS) a decade later - were named Co-Directors of the newly created program.

"Verna had already introduced a number of humanism initiatives in the Faculty. We enjoyed a wonderful collaborative relationship during the early years of the program, and even after she moved on to other positions, she remained a great supporter of the AHHM program," says Brett-MacLean. "She is currently supporting a storytelling initiative throughout AHS, so she has carried that on. I was very lucky to have the opportunity to work with her."

Brett-MacLean's multiple roles as Director of the AHHM program encompass both pan-Faculty efforts, and contributions across the continuum of learning.

She contributes to undergraduate programs in the Faculty in various ways. "In year one during orientation week we participate in a Scavenger Hunt event. It brings students across all health professions undergraduate programs directly into the AHHM program office and has helped students to understand what the program offers," she says.

In the MD program, she has also supported the introduction of an interpretive art project, which offers students the opportunity to reflect on significant insights they gained regarding the experience of chronic illness after visiting with their patient mentors over a two-year period.

"We invite students to use different media to capture something significant that they've learned through a more metaphorical, symbolic language that is new to many of our students," she explains.

"For the last four years we have organized an exhibit of the projects our students have completed, along with their artists' statements, during a Patient Appreciation Event. The event gives us an opportunity to help 'make visible' and celebrate the contributions our patient mentor volunteers and their family members make to our students' understanding of the 'art of medicine.' Many of the students' interpretive projects are displayed in the John W. Scott Health Sciences Library through the month of April each year."

Brett-MacLean has also created several arts and humanities electives that medical students and others can experience, including an arts-based research elective, Directed Studies in Medical/Health Humanities; Communicating Care: A Theatre-Based Approach; Shadowing Artists on the Wards; The Art of Observation; and The Healer's Art elective.

Increasingly, clerkship students from other medical schools are applying to complete two or three week directed studies and art-based electives with the AHHM program as visiting students. Cristina Balaita, who recently was accepted as a psychiatry resident at the University of Toronto, describes her elective experience with the AHHM program as highly enriching.

"The space to reflect and create was an extremely valuable one for me, as there are few opportunities to do this in medical school. I realized through the elective that the process of creating can be a powerful one in making connections between areas of learning and in bringing one closer to an exploration of meaning … which is immeasurably important to mental health and continued motivation in one's work," she says.

In addition to undergraduate teaching, Brett-MacLean is Co-Director of the Fostering Humanism and Professionalism Teaching Scholars (TSP 007) course with Dr. Carol Hodgson, which is offered to residents and Faculty members.

Under her direction, the program organizes 'signature' offerings, such as the AHHM Speaker Series and Science in the Cinema, which the AHHM program helps to organize in partnership with the Office of Research. Each season one of the featured films usually focuses on mental health issues.

The program also attempts to organize at least one high-profile event each year. The long list of artists, writers and performers who have participated in past events include Christine Borland, Vincent Lam, Brian Lobel and David Diamond, as well as medical/health humanities scholars and educators such as Rita Charon, Arthur Frank, Alan Bleakley, Alan Peterkin, Jonathon Bolton, Arno Kumagai and William T. Branch Jr.

Another ongoing contribution to the Faculty involves an initiative that resulted from a Teaching & Learning Enhancement Fund grant that Brett-MacLean and Dr. Verna Yiu were awarded. That ultimately led Dr. Douglas Miller, former Dean of the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, to suggest in 2014 that David Diamond, Artistic Director of Theatre for Living, visit regularly each spring and fall and work with various programs within the Faculty.

This initiative was subsequently supported by Dr. Richard Fedorak, current Dean of the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, and continues on today. Through interactive theatre-based workshops, Diamond has helped numerous groups to explore difficult issues such as moral distress, relational ethics, mechanization of healthcare, communication and effective team functioning, and struggling to overcome barriers to well-being - all with a view to enhancing community and promoting healthy learning environments within the Faculty. They are currently booking workshops through 2019.

At the recent Creating Space meeting organized in advance of the 2018 Canadian Conference on Medical Education in Halifax, Brett-MacLean presented on a workshop that Diamond facilitated. This helped to support team-building in relation to the collaborative research initiative involving people impacted by head and neck cancer, health researchers and artists.

The See Me, Hear Me, Heal Me project led by Dr. Minn Yoon in the School of Dentistry has led to the FLUX exhibit which is opening on May 18th at the International Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago. Brad Necyk, one of the participating artists, is a doctoral student in the Department of Psychiatry who is co-supervised by Drs. Brett-MacLean and Andy Greenshaw, Associate Chair - Research.

Brett-MacLean presents and publishes widely on her work. She is heading to Palma de Mallorca, Spain, in July where she will present a paper on digital learning approaches to health humanities at EDULEARN 2018, an international conference on education and new learning technologies.

In addition to her teaching and research roles, Brett-MacLean continues to support the growth of the health humanities across Canada. She recently helped to found the new Canadian Association for Health Humanities and is currently serving as an advisor to the newly elected CAHH executive committee.

Looking ahead, what does Brett-MacLean foresee as her program continues to build its public profile, on campus and beyond?

"I want to ensure that the AHHM program continues to grow and expand in response to the interests and needs of those across the Faculty, so I am planning to introduce an AHHM program affiliate membership initiative this year," she says.

"I also hope to support expansion of the health humanities by introducing a Mental Health Humanities initiative in the Department of Psychiatry. And, of course, I'll also continue to publish and present on the leading edge health humanities innovations we are introducing in the Faculty here at the University of Alberta."