Art and Humanities in Surgical Education: A Necessity or a Luxury in the Age of AI?

26 Oct 2023

By Razan M. Baabdullah, BDS, MS, FRCDC

They say empathy is the cornerstone of a compassionate healthcare provider. They say that you must approach your patients as sentient beings. They say that you have to foster the patient-doctor relationship. But they time you, they love efficiency, and they like to see numbers and figures, big ones. Quality? Well, not so much. They like ubiquitous monitors, electronic medical records, and certainly a screen in the room where it soon becomes the focal point and more valued than the patient in the room, stealing attention from the very humans we swore to prioritize, and now we are turning our backs to them to face the screen. Now, we are spending more time, not with human beings, but with insurance papers, to face once again screens, forms, and emails. 

Let me be clear: I’m no Luddite. I’m not averse to technology or contend against its utilization or laudable advantages. I also champion efficiency when properly employed and when it does not reduce patients to mere digits or allow profit to sabotage care provision. 

But, we must not lose sight of our roots. We must hold onto the humanistic core of this profession with our teeth. We must keep the human touch untouched. And one salient way to help us stay connected in an AI epoch is through art and humanities. These are our allies. 

The divergence between STEM and art and humanities is significant because somehow, we have decided that one doesn’t complement the other, or there’s not enough time in the STEM curricula to inject any kind of art and humanities. I don’t propose a marriage between the two, but it is high time we ring this divide. 

Art becomes something we realize we can’t do without once we witness the consequences of its absence. And it has been absent from the painting of the STEM field for a very long time. Just like C.S Lewis put it: “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art …. It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.” We may not fully grasp the importance of art in medicine until we read something like this: A cross-sectional study included 10,751 students in medical schools found a statistically significant diminution in empathy levels among clinical-year students (years three and four) compared to their preclinical counterparts (years one and two), despite the former’s superior scientific and clinical knowledge.

So, we are doing very well on the STEM part but faltering on the humanistic part. Once we veer away from art and humanities, we risk losing sight of the very essence that drew us into this field in the first place: to provide care with utter care. That is because the humanistic edifice is inextricable from care provision. It is not an ancillary component, but rather, it is sine qua non. 

If we do not hold onto the humanistic aspect and continue forsaking the exploration of art and humanities, we may find ourselves entrapped in an occupation identity crisis, questioning why we are doing what we are doing. Call it alienation in Marxian terms or cognitive dissonance in Festinger’s parlance; the core issue remains the same. We lose connection with our patients.

I can lecture my students all I want about the vital importance of compassion and empathy in our field. Still, it won’t matter if I don’t equip them with the means to forge genuine personal connections and put empathy into practice. 

Fortunately, art and humanities have the capacity not only to teach these indispensable qualities but also to nurture and foster them. They can inculcate the ethos of empathy and cultural humanities. Art has proven instrumental in enhancing surgical residents’ skills, improving cognitive abilities, honing observation acumen, refining patient communication and social competencies, and bolstering patient-physician relationships. It also plays a pivotal role in addressing healthcare disparities and cultivating healthcare practitioners imbued with empathy and compassion.

As Richard Bach stated, “You teach best what you most need to learn.” Well, in this day and age, we all stand in need of relearning the art of empathy with our patients, and one potent way to achieve this is by introducing art into our teaching. Several initiatives have incorporated art into their medical pedagogy, but many still face bureaucratic impediments that question the relevance of art and humanities in a STEM-oriented field. 

“No prior knowledge is required. No art, art history, surgical, or medical knowledge is needed. There are no right or wrong answers here. This is a safe space. All you need for this is yourself, your brain, and your inner child to surface. Now, look at this painting and tell me, “What’s going on in this painting?” This is how I have been opening my lectures, sessions, workshops, and pretty much any chance of learning activity. I have been practicing visual thinking strategies (VTS) with my students across all years, from preclinical to clinical, residents, and post-graduates. The amount of discussion it sparks and the level of enthusiasm and engagement it ignites are remarkable. All I allot is five to ten minutes for this exercise. At times, I conclude the VTS with a philosophical question, watching their eyes light up with curiosity. Or I delve into the social medicine dimensions, exploring how they might apply these insights in a clinical setting. It is not a lot, but it’s a start. If we can infuse more art and humanities into our curricula and plan visits to local museums, maybe we can commence to bridge the gap between STEM and the arts and humanities. Maybe we can preserve the level of empathy, not only for 3rd and 4th-year students but also for practicing physicians. Maybe we can nurture individuals who are less biased, less prejudiced, and more compassionate, individuals better equipped to navigate the rigor of this demanding profession. 

In these tumultuous times, our need for art and humanities is more pressing than ever before. We can dedicate entire courses to teaching them or simply set aside a few minutes. The choice is ours. But it is a choice we can make. We will use all kinds of technology because we can’t, shouldn’t, and don’t want to go backward. But we can also find ways, cogent stratagem, to reconnect with our humanistic sides in the multifaceted interactions we have with patients. Will this help remedy all the malignancies of contemporary medicine, the decline in empathy, and the surge of burnout? Well, no. But it’s certainly a tool, a starting point from which we may begin to address one aspect of this complex problem. 


Dr. Baabdullah is an assistant professor, clinical researcher, and oral and maxillofacial surgeon with a passion for education and healthcare innovation. She earned her dental degree from King AbdulAziz University in Saudi Arabia and completed her surgical internship and residency in oral and maxillofacial surgery at McGill University. There, she founded, a virtual platform dedicated to teaching innovation in the field, particularly in the realm of virtual surgical planning.

Pursuing her academic journey, she obtained a Master’s degree from Harvard Medical School, concentrating on oral cancer screening and the role of policy making and social medicine in shaping healthcare agendas. Dr. Baabdullah’s research aimed to expand access to surgical care and reshape the practices of general dentists and primary healthcare providers regarding oral cancer screening. To this end, Dr. Baabdullah developed a program that integrates art and humanities into teaching oral cancer screening, leveraging VR and state-of-the-art museum technologies at Harvard University and MIT.

Her overarching mission revolves around empowering students, fellow surgeons, and healthcare providers by reigniting the artistic and philosophical dimensions of their field. Consequently, she established an empathy program at the Harvard Art Museums where the worlds of art and humanities converge to revive a renaissance of thought and practice within the healthcare community.

You can find more of her writing here.


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