Teaching Empathy With The Arts: The Next Cutting-Edge Medical Advancement


“I do not ask the wounded person how he feels,
I myself become the wounded person.”
― Walt Whitman, Song of Myself


We’ve all heard—or watched popular television shows—about the intense training medical students go through, the long hours, the pressure to perform. It’s easy to understand why some doctors eventually become desensitized to suffering and heightened emotions. Unfortunately, that often translates to cold or uninterested care, from the patients’ perspective. As we wrote about in an earlier post, this is a concern for the medical profession, given the relationship between bedside manner and health outcomes.


Educators are seeking out innovative ways to ensure that new physicians graduate not only with the technical skills, but also the interpersonal skills required to provide patients with exceptional medical care. According to a Boston Globe article, while elementary and secondary schools nationwide are cutting funding for arts and humanities education, more and more elite medical schools are actively working to build these courses into their curricula.


The medical schools at Brown, Columbia, Harvard, Penn State, and Yale have all incorporated some form of arts courses or events into their offerings, including fictional writing, theater and dance classes, and museum field trips. Why? The arts have a unique ability to help future physicians better understand their patients and the emotional toll of sickness and suffering, and connect with patients more deeply in order to provide them with better care.


  • Recent research demonstrates a relationship between engagement with the arts—such as reading literary fiction—and enhanced empathy.
  • Arts education offers a broad range of related benefits for physicians. For example, studying paintings sharpens a young physician’s powers of observation and visual diagnostic skills.
  • The arts provide a valuable way for stressed medical students to process their own emotions while undergoing intense training, and throughout high-stress, high-stakes careers.


Empathetic physicians are essential to patients’ health and well-being. With medical care becoming more standardized and high-tech, and medical training pushing students to their limits, medical schools are discovering the importance of an arts education in keeping their students and their students’ future patients happy and healthy.


— posted by Ingrid