Research has shown that engaging with art is beneficial to people with dementia, and a number of cultural institutions around the US have established therapeutic programs for patients suffering from such chronic diseases. A new pilot study recently published in Neurology finds that including medical students in these museum-based programs improves their attitudes towards dementia, likely strengthening overall doctor-patient relationships. Conducted by medical student Hannah J. Roberts and Dr. James M. Noble, assistant professor of clinical neurology at Columbia University’s Medical Center, the study argues for medical schools to incorporate such cultural programs into their curricula, which often limit experiences to traditional environments like hospitals and clinics.
“These programs rely on preserved abilities, provide a vehicle for nonverbal emotional expression, and develop a state of flow (concentration and pleasure derived from an intrinsically rewarding activity), leading to a sense of well-being,” the researchers write. “Including a medical student in such an experience could improve his or her understanding of existing community-based programs to complement aspects of palliative care strategies.”
The research team conducted the study in New York City, where a number of major cultural institutions offer these types of programs, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Studio Museum in Harlem. Reaching out to 167 preclinical first-year students at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, the researchers invited the first 20 who responded to answer a questionnaire that assessed their perspectives on dementia and then sent them to attend these programs. The sessions, each 90 minutes long, featured activities such as art discussions and art-making with both patients and their caregivers. They occurred at the Metropolitan Museum’s Met Escapes and the Cloisters’ children’s program Sights & Scents, as well as at Arts & Minds, established by Noble at the Studio Museum and the New-York Historical Society (starting in September, El Museo del Barrio will also host the program). The students then took the questionnaire once more. Comparing the results with initial responses, measured on a “Dementia Attitudes Scale” (DAS), revealed improved student attitudes towards dementia, with the most perceptible differences seen in their comfort levels.
There are some issues with the study: the participant sample size is very small, and it’s worth noting that a number of the chosen programs were established by Noble himself, creating a potential conflict of interest. Nonetheless, the researchers’ conclusion is encouraging: such programs “could have a considerable impact on subsequent clinical encounters, providing a better understanding of how patients and caregivers experience meaningful relationships and sustain quality of life.” They note, too, that other community-based, nonclinical programs that involve medical students do exist and illustrate the benefits of their findings. Some medical schools, for example, require students to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in order for them to better relate to those fighting alcoholism.