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New Video Uses Art as Tool to Teach Empathy to Medical Students

October 13, 2008

Examining a person, not a painting, is how you would normally think medical students and residents learn, but that's not what you'll see in a first-of-its-kind video produced by a professor at Drexel University College of Medicine. "The Heart of Empathy" is an inside look into the unique teaching style of Dr. Florence Gelo, a pastoral psychotherapist and psychoanalyst for over 30 years, and the behavioral science coordinator for Drexel's Family Medicine Residency Program. This video captures Dr. Gelo's technique of using the visual arts to teach medical residents how to emotionally prepare for and deal with death.

After developing a spirituality and medicine curriculum at Drexel University College of Medicine, Dr. Gelo saw a need to help young doctors and medical students deal with the impact of human suffering and death, an integral part of the medical profession.

"They're seeing family members throw themselves on the floor, scream, shout, weep, and the first thing that the student wonders is a natural sense of responsibility: did I do something wrong? What else could I have done? These residents need to talk about these feelings," says Dr. Gelo.

Inspired by her experience as a Philadelphia Museum of Art tour guide, Dr. Gelo began to notice the emotional impact of paintings on the viewer, and imagined their use as a powerful teaching resource in medical education. For five years, Dr. Gelo has brought small groups of Drexel University College of Medicine students and residents to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where they view and discuss paintings that depict death and dying. This unique experience has been captured in "The Heart of Empathy." Over time, her students typically become better able to deeply explore the extreme suffering portrayed in the paintings, which helps them realize and articulate the emotional reactions these portrayals arouse within themselves.

"I've seen medical students moved to tears when viewing a painting. Many medical students are at an age where most of them haven't had the experience of dealing with death and are unfamiliar with the actual realities of what it looks like," says Dr. Gelo, who is also a palliative care expert.

"The Heart of Empathy" has been distributed to medical schools across the country offering a new point of view to medical curricula.