For Doctors Stressed By COVID-19, A Fine Art Brush May Be Just What The Doctor Ordered

Each branch of medicine has its challenges. In palliative care, it is the burden of bad news that weighs heavily on physicians.

“We’re often at the table when people are told the most devastating news they’ve ever heard in their lives,” says Dr. Warren Lewin, Palliative Care Site Leader at Toronto Western Hospital at the University Health Network .

Other medical specialties have the happy balance of confirming a pregnancy or announcing that a disease is in remission. Palliative care physicians treat people in their final and most vulnerable moments.

Helping professionals in the field build resilience against burnout is essential.

So when Lewin learned about a program at the Harvard Museums that introduces physicians to looking deeply into the fine arts as a way to manage stress, he approached the Art Gallery of Ontario.

The practice is sometimes called “looking closely” and involves spending more time with an artwork than the average three to 10 seconds that is the norm for most people walking through a museum. It includes sitting quietly with a piece, contemplating it as a whole and in its parts, to talk about the thoughts, ideas and emotions that the work inspires.

It is not about knowing which school it belongs to or the year it was painted, although that information is available to participants. It’s about experiencing the artwork fully, in a way that puts everyday worries aside and sharpens an appreciation for beauty in general.

The goal is to help clinicians learn to relax with art and to think in new and more creative ways.

Lewin approached the AGO in January 2020. Melissa Smith, assistant curator of community programs, put together a program for doctors that was ready to enter the museum, just before COVID-19 broke. It ended up running through Zoom in June 2020.

It was so popular that Smith has had three more.

“It was amazing, even though it was on Zoom. It was a great experience, ”says Dr. Shahar Geva Robinson, in her second year of an international fellowship at the University of Toronto in palliative care.

Robinson, who is visiting from Israel, had been to a few art galleries in high school, but not as an adult. Studying medicine left little room for appreciation of the fine arts.

“I never really got it. Like, what am I supposed to do with art? How am I supposed to enjoy it? “says Robinson.

She says participating in the show helped her develop her ability to pause and reflect.

“It helped me to be more contemplative about things.”

The original idea was the brainchild of Dr. Hyewon Hyun, a radiologist and nuclear medicine physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

Hyun is also the director of the joint nuclear medicine program that trains future physicians in nuclear medicine and molecular imaging, with an interest in art.

He began to think about the similarities and differences between studying medical images and art.

“In both cases, I’m trying to make sense of what I see,” says Hyun.

In 2018, he approached David Odo, director of academic and public programs at the Harvard Art Museums, to design a curriculum for imaging physicians. It is still in use today.

In addition to providing training, the sessions create a calmer and safer environment, away from the life-and-death realities of medical work, where healthcare professionals can explore and discuss difficult topics as they arise, Odo says.

AGO’s Smith uses a variety of artwork to fuel the discussion. The first piece from the first session he put together was “The West Wind” by Tom Thomson. Smith said he wanted to start with something that might be familiar to the participants. Later, when they feel more comfortable, include works that could be considered less representative and more challenging, such as “Blue Reflections” by Kazuo Nakamura, 1962.

Burnout among physicians has been exacerbated by the demands COVID-19 places on the profession, Lewin says.

During the pandemic, his workload increased so much that he felt like he was working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. He was falling asleep at his desk. Any hint of balance had disappeared from his life. It had to be his partner to point it out.

“I think that’s what happens to a lot of people. It stalks you, ”says Lewin.

Dr. Daphna Grossman, a Palliative Care Physician at North York General Hospital, has been Co-Director of the University of Toronto Palliative Care Residents and Palliative Care Fellows Wellness and Resilience Course since 2015, and invited Lewin to co-lead in 2019 .

“We know that building resilience and well-being is important to mitigating burnout,” says Grossman, who has been working grueling hours caring for COVID patients.

Remember that it burned eight years ago. She became irritable. He lost interest in hanging out with friends. I was tired all the time.

His youngest daughter, then 12, was the one who put it all together.

“Do you need to stop work and take time off?” he asked his mother.

Grossman said he realized, to his surprise, that it was.

Lewin and Grossman say preventing burnout among hospice physicians is critical because the field is understaffed, a problem that is likely to get worse as the population ages.

Both physicians participated in the Zoom event.

“I loved it. And when I say I loved it, I hope they see it in capital letters and bold,” says Grossman.

“We focus a lot on our work all the time. We often miss these beautiful moments, and that raised awareness of it. “

Lewin says he has started incorporating art into some of his lectures and has posted art in his office. When residents walk in, nervous or overwhelmed, he sometimes invites them to look at the piece and talk about something else, to allow time for a reboot.

The program has also inspired physicians to engage with museums, Odo says. He now directs a series of shorter, more informal Art Breaks at Zoom for Doctors. They tell him that they now visit more museums, sometimes with their family and friends.

After participating in the program, Robinson purchased an AGO annual pass and has visited it several times. He loves the Monets and has also been inspired by more modern art, such as the Andy Warhol exhibition.

“I was very inspired by his general approach to experimenting with everything.”

Francine Kopun is a Toronto reporter covering city hall and city politics for The Star. Follow her on Twitter: @KopunF

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