The power of art to improve health and reduce health disparities

Individual Author(s) / Organizational Author
Nyquist, Claire
Partners for Advancing Health Equity
May 2024
Abstract / Description

In a world filled with disparities and inequities, the intersection of art and public health emerges as a bright light, offering avenues for both expression and empowerment. Art such as poetry, music, and paintings allow for the public to convey the harsh realities many vulnerable populations face. There are several pathways through which art might be able to mitigate health disparities, from better representation in medical education to diverse forms of occupational health and imagining more equitable futures.

Teaching Medical Students to Observe 
Incorporating art into medical education may be beneficial to students’ observational skills and empathy. Teaching medical students to study and describe art has been shown to improve their observational and pattern recognition skills. New art programs in medical schools have been developed after Project Zero at Harvard University pioneered the practice. At the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, medical students can participate in the “Art, Observation, and Empathy” course which takes the study of art and applies it to medical training. This course facilitates an understanding of ambiguity in both art and medicine and encourages close observation and effective communication. Studying sculpture from different angles might improve observation of patient breathing and improve diagnosis of where in the body shortness of breath may be originating. In another example, a student applied their observational skills honed by studying art to analyze a CT scan. Keener attention to detail in examining patients may improve medical students’ diagnostic skills.

Representation in Medical Illustration
Chidiebere Ibe is a medical illustrator who creates medical illustrations of people with dark skin tones. Medical illustrators like Ibe are changing who is seen in medical illustration to represent the diversity of the United States. One study showed that among more than 4,000 medical illustrations in four textbooks, 74.5% represented people with light skin tones, 21% were of medium skin tones, and 4.5% portrayed dark skin tones, which is not representative of the U.S. population. For conditions like skin cancer, this lack of representation in clinicians’ educational materials may mean that health care providers do not recognize the condition in patients with darker skin colors, with consequences for their health. This makes Ibe’s work one important avenue for using art to ameliorate health disparities.

Art and Occupational Therapy Can Be Broadened to Explore the Art of Many Cultures 
Hospitals have occupational therapy programs for patients spending time in the hospital or receiving behavioral health treatment. Occupational and art therapy can be expanded to be inclusive and explore music and art created by people from marginalized groups and many cultures. The American Occupational Therapy Association is leading the way in ensuring occupational therapy serves the diversity of patients in the United States to address racial discrimination and stigma and to serve transgender and gender-diverse individuals. Diverse staff in occupational therapy roles and programs can support patients’ wellbeing through extended stays in the hospital. Increasing the representation of racial and ethnic minorities and LGBTQIA+ individuals in art therapy staff can create a more inclusive space and address health disparities.

Art Can Help Imagine Futures with True Health Equity 
Art can provide a space to imagine futures of true health equity. It can facilitate difficult conversations about health disparities and stigma and begin to address them. 
Two pieces that focus on the intersection of art and promoting health equity are Ryan Petteway’s, “Altering Auras, Ideas, and Dreams: Naming and (Re)Claiming a Poetry for the Public’s Health,” as well as Derek Griffith and Andrea Semlow’s, “Art, Anti-Racism and Health Equity: "Don't Ask Me Why, Ask Me How!” Petteway, Griffith, and Semlow discuss the transformative potential of art in promoting health equity. By leveraging creative expression, we can amplify marginalized voices, confront injustices, and envision a future where everyone has equal access to resources and opportunities. We are challenged to reconsider the role of poetry in shaping public health narratives.

Petteway discusses how as a tool for fostering awareness, understanding, and action in matters of public health to effect change. Poetry is a way to express the complexities of human experience, including the social determinants of health that often go unacknowledged. Griffith and Semlow challenge us to view art as an important tool that confronts uncomfortable truths and creates a better future. By intersecting art with public health discourse, we emphasize the invisible threads that connect individual well-being to broader societal structures.

The Visualize Health Equity program initiated by the National Academy of Medicine in 2017 sprung from the Culture of Health program and encouraged artists to explore health equity. The project encouraged artists and communities to imagine health equity in the interest of all people. It also asked artists to think about clinician wellbeing and the importance to patient health.

The Power of Art 
Art is a powerful ally in the journey towards health equity. It possesses the unique ability to transcend language barriers, cultural divides, and preconceived notions. Visual arts, music, theater, and literature, can ignite conversations, challenge biases, and amplify the voices of those who have been marginalized and silenced. We must actively cultivate spaces where art and health equity intersect, as well as embrace art as a catalyst for change. This can be achieved by creating inclusive platforms for marginalized voices, advocating for policy changes that prioritize health equity, or supporting grassroots initiatives that address the social determinants of health.

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