UMN Medical School promotes storytelling through medicine with new arts initiative

Amid a global pandemic, the Medical School emphasizes the importance of the arts and humanities in STEM careers with the recently launched Center for the Art of Medicine.

Frankie Carlson

“Wherever the art of medicine is loved, there is also a love of humanity.”

This quote, credited to ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, embodies the University of Minnesota Medical School’s latest programs.

The recently launched Center for the Art of Medicine (CFAM) is an initiative within the University’s Medical School to promote storytelling within medicine and a more holistic curriculum and experience for medical students, residents and faculty alike.

Dr. Maren Olson, associate director for CFAM and pediatric hospitalist for Children’s Minnesota, described the importance of medical education, focusing not only on the science of medicine but the art of medicine as well.

“I think there is more and more evidence that intentionally incorporating arts and humanities into medical education makes people better doctors,” Olson said. “We know that storytelling builds empathy and hearing stories builds empathy.”

Fellow associate director and pediatric hospitalist Dr. Ben Trappey echoed these sentiments.

“Humans aren’t purely scientific creatures, you know; the arts are built into humanity,” Trappey said. “It’s a detriment to science and to medicine to neglect that part of who we are as people, I think.”

While the pandemic has delayed the initial March 2020 launch date, the directors at CFAM opened their metaphorical doors this past fall.

The idea for the center came from Dr. Jakub Tolar, dean of the University’s Medical School. In 2019, Tolar and CFAM director and medical director of Mill City Clinic, Dr. Jon Hallberg, began making plans to take the existing humanities-based projects within the Medical School and the new innovative programs under one roof.

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Along with arts and humanities in the curriculum, the Center for the Art of Medicine has seven primary projects. While work on some of these projects has been allowed to continue, others remain on hold due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Projects like “Music in the Clinics” are currently unable to take place, while other work and events such as the “Hippocrates Cafe” have been able to pivot and continue. “Hippocrates Cafe” is a decade-long tradition that operates as a live variety show where performers explore healthcare topics through art. Recently, a live recording of “Hippocrates Cafe” took place in partnership with Twin Cities PBS.

The center has hosted two virtual “story slams” since the beginning of the pandemic, where healthcare workers and medical students shared their experiences on a variety of issues.

“We ended up getting this really powerful mix of stories of people’s experience with the COVID pandemic and then people’s experience with the pandemic of racism and racial injustice, and so we had this great virtual space for people to gather and process some really challenging experiences,” Olson said.

There are currently no plans to establish a physical space for the Center for the Art of Medicine; however, the directors hope to continue expanding.

Hannah Michelson, marketing manager for CFAM, hopes to see a continued dialogue and partnership with local artists and creators in the Twin Cities.

“I really like the connections we’re able to build with artists in our community throughout the whole pandemic and being able to work with them more fully to find ways to get our physicians and our healthcare providers outlets that they need to be their best selves [in order] to combat that physician burnout that we know is so real,” Michelson said.

Hallberg hopes to continue the work of providing platforms for healthcare voices in the community.

“In 2-3 years I’d like to see CFAM be at the forefront of medical humanities programs in the country in terms of creative output from medical students, residents, fellows, core faculty and community physicians,” Hallberg said in an email to the Minnesota Daily. “This will occur largely in the form of Story Slam participation, publications in medical and literary journals, Hippocrates Cafe productions, and other forms of creative expression.”

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