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Art and the He(art)

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While I was waiting in line for lunch at our cafeteria at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), a student stepped behind me with a big smile on his face. I know this student, Pally, and asked what he'd been up to. Pally said he'd just gotten back from a travel course in Italy. Since we were in line for food together, I couldn't help but comment to Pally, "Italy. Mmmmm. You must have loved the food there." He looked at me with slight hesitation and said, "Well, yeah. But..." His smile widened even further, "The art there... was even better!" He went further, "Professor Drew knew all about the art, how it was made, how it came to be, every brushstroke down to the most minute detail." He couldn't stop beaming. His sheer joy made me smile too for the rest of that day, for it confirmed to me what I know about young artists: that their passion for what they do outstrips almost everything else.

It was this unbridled passion for creativity that beguiled the many doctors, researchers, and other healthcare professionals who visited our art school campus for a symposium sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Organized by our Interim Dean of Fine Arts, Deborah Bright, and a critic in our Architecture department, Brian Goldberg, it wasn't your typical healthcare symposium. Artists and designers presented a wide range of health-related works and inventions, ranging from a bag-shaped object that you can privately scream into to release pent-up anxiety, to a public art project that is increasing a town's understanding of long embedded toxins in their local environment, to visualizations of the discourse around the healthcare bill that bring order to confusion. Here are some key points I culled from listening to the keynotes by Dr. Henry Koh, US Assistant Secretary of Health and Donna Garland, Director of Communications at the CDC.

  • Art can be leveraged to heighten awareness of public health concerns in a way that plain statistics cannot. As Dr Koh put it, "Art humanizes public health."
  • Design can reduce complexity and help patients understand their illnesses, creating a greater sense of control (versus helplessness).
  • Both art and design are employed in public health constantly -- whether it be the elegant system of stairs in the CDC designed to encourage walking between floors, or the graphics on cigarette packing to suggest smoking cessation, or plates in cafeterias that are printed with messages that encourage filling them with vegetables.
  • Art for art's sake still matters. While a Mondrian, or a Jackson Pollack, or a Monet that hangs in a hospital has no direct, measurable therapeutic value, it serves to remind us all, even when we are ill, that artists reflect humanity's collective wondrous imagination and power to inspire.

In short, I believe we are on the verge of new discoveries in healthcare that will be powered by innovation from art and design. I invite more healthcare professionals to dialogue with their local art schools and organizations. They will surely find common ground -- the artist's passion and respect for humanity likely mirrors their own raison d'être for entering healthcare in the first place.