‘A Year of the Arts’ Reflections from the UCL Medical Humanities student group

By Harriet Williams

 It is often said that ‘Medicine is both an art and a science’. This phrase can sometimes be used to explain the approach needed to deal with the complex web of interactions, decisions and ethical dilemmas in everyday clinical practice.

As I go through medical school and meet patients with a wide variety of ideas, viewpoints and expectations, I am beginning to understand this better. Essentially, medicine is an art because all human beings are different, perhaps not physiologically but certainly in terms of psychological and spiritual outlooks. To reconcile patients’ perspectives with our own agenda as doctors, we need to be equipped with creativity and imagination. This is why, more often than not, protocol in medicine is futile and it is often termed an art.


The art of medicine is not only executed in specialties deemed more creative and less technical but in all disciplines and in all settings. In general practice, there are thousands of people who come to see their doctor because they ‘feel ill’, despite there being no detectable pathology after seemingly endless investigations. Guiding patients through uncertainty with many issues unresolved requires patience, time and skill, none of which are easily gained if the practice of medicine is viewed through a purely biomedical lens.

Similarly, a transplant surgeon in a tertiary hospital may find that purely objective measures fail to provide solutions to the ethical dilemmas involved in the transplantation of organs. How will she decide which of her two patients in renal failure with near identical pathology is in greater need of the one available kidney?

Such situations are not rare occurrences. They are met everyday by every doctor. Yet to manage these situations effectively, clinicians require an appreciation of the intricate web of art and science involved. This is where medicine becomes more complex and more interesting because we must engage with it as an art form rather than as a purely scientific endeavour.

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If medicine can be seen as an art in itself, it makes sense for clinicians to study the arts as part of their training. Whilst some doctors remain sceptical, the role of the arts in medical education is well documented and now incorporated into the medical school curriculum at many medical schools.

Many believe a superficial appreciation of the arts may help clinicians become more empathetic to patients in distress and consequently enable them to be more adept at handling difficult consultations. Others argue for a more radical engagement with the arts. Some medical schools in the USA incorporate trips to art galleries into medical training as they believe that developing students’ skills in ‘close looking’ at paintings and sculpture will translate to better observation skills at the patient’s bedside. However, total integration of the arts into the curriculum may render them disciplines to be learnt rather than enjoyed and the escapism that the arts currently offer many may be in jeopardy.

mona lisa

In an attempt to expose medical students at University College London (UCL) to the role the arts can play in our development as doctors, but at the same time allow them to be enjoyed, this year saw the launch of UCL’s first Medical Humanities student group. This followed a pilot book club, which ran in the previous academic year. Although the pilot project was successful, it was often difficult for members to read the whole of a book due to time constraints and deadlines.

The new Medical Humanities group addressed this issue of time constraints by not limiting its focus to literature. Rather, a range of humanities related to medicine; namely, art, film, theatre and literature were explored. Moreover, an additional aim of the group was to unite students with similar interests and create a platform for discussion and debate.

Our first event was a well-attended screening of a film adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s ‘The Painted Veil’ starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts. The film centres on a bacteriologist who travels to rural China to assist in a cholera epidemic. Interestingly, the discussion which followed focused on how the issues portrayed in the filmed are comparable to the recent Ebola outbreak. In particular, we discussed the conflict between medical crisis resolution and cultural practices surrounding the burial of infected bodies.


We held our next meeting at the Wellcome Collection, where we visited the Institute of Sexology exhibition. This temporary exhibition charted the history of sex and sexology. It included excerpts from Married Love by Marie Stopes, one of the first publications aimed at giving sexual health advice to the general public.


At our third event we watched ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’, a film based on the autobiographical account of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the former editor of French Elle magazine. He developed locked in syndrome following a catastrophic brainstem stroke. Bauby was left only able to communicate with a single eyelid, a technique which he used to write his memoir. Viewing the film from Bauby’s viewpoint gave us a unique perspective of his experience and a shared intense frustration when he is unable to communicate.


The first year of this venture is now coming to an end and the medical student body is slowly beginning to focus on the exams ahead. Was the Medical Humanities group useful? What, if any benefit, have these events and trips offered medical students?

On reflection, it seems that there may be no immediate benefit to us in terms of passing exams and climbing up the decile rankings. In view of this, the role of the arts, at this stage in our career, can seem superfluous to some. However, just as I am keen to avoid deconstructing patients to their pathology and diagnosis, I try to value the whole experience of medical school, rather than focusing on those two dreaded days in July.

It is not yet clear whether students who engage in the arts will reap the benefits later.

Having said this, the arts reflect the human experience and therefore shed light on the subtleties of the practice of medicine. I believe they will allow us to show empathy to patients who are unable to communicate and help us better understand patients who have radically different ideas about illness from our own.

Our future role will not be easy but when we start to become overwhelmed with complexity and responsibility, I hope the arts will give us some perspective; some awareness of where medicine is now, where it has come from and where it is yet to go.

If you are interested in becoming involved in the UCL Medical Humanities student group this is their fb page:  https://www.facebook.com/groups/1009865292375410/

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