Where arts and medicine connect

Lisa WongLisa Wong '79 talks about the intersection of arts and medicine. She will teach a JAMS! Wintersession seminar on the topic in January. 

By Truelian Lee '21

I thought it was only recently that more public attention had been directed to the intersection of arts and medicine. However, during my conversation with pediatric physician and musician Lisa Wong ’79, I learned I was wrong.

“I think the intersection of arts and medicine has always been with us,” she said, citing Theodor Billroth, an acclaimed surgeon at the University of Vienna by day and a musician who worked closely with Johannes Brahms by night. “There were parallels there in always striving for an improvement. In medicine, we strive for the balance and the beauty of health, and in music, there’s the aesthetic process of making it.”

Lisa Wong
Lisa Wong '79
Wong will be leading a JAMS! Wintersession seminar “Art, Creativity and Medicine” on 1-5 p.m. Thursday, January 18. I sat down with her to learn more about the ways art can interact with medicine in today’s society.An edited and condensed version of our conversation follows.

What inspired you to get involved with Harvard’s Wintersession?
The Wintersessions seemed like a great opportunity for people explore things that they might otherwise not have a chance to do. There are also a lot of premeds very interested in the arts in medicine.

Why do premeds want to study the arts?
I think most premeds have an art form already. There are writers, musicians and visual artists. One of the things I’ve seen is that these students feel as if they have to ask permission to continue their art, because when you're a premed student and you're looking to go to medical school, you think, “Well, I have to give up all those things that I love to do, and I have to grow up and be a real doctor.” Yet a lot of our doctors have an art form, and so we really want to reassure the next generation that their art actually helps to promote and improve their medical skills. They can use a lot of what they've learned as artists and using that physicians.

What are some of the ways doctors can use art in medicine?
Like medicine, the arts are an iterative process; you don't immediately just have it right. For example, I'm a musician. When I'm preparing a piece, I first get an idea of the entire scope of the work, then I have to pay attention to all the smaller details, and when you're practicing, you play something and then you play it again until you perfected it to the way that you want to express it. That process is easily translatable into medicine. You hear a patient's story and get an idea of what the diagnosis might be and try to think of the arc arc of treatment. But then you have to pay attention to all the details—the lab records, the exam, and all of that, and then bring it together as one single diagnosis. As soon as you put it on the paper, you keep on going back and refining. It’s the art of medicine.

What are some of the new things you’ll be doing at this Wintersession?
This year we're having a new session on innovation and collaboration. The common perception is that there’s a solo artist who makes the piece, but actually, a lot of art is done collaboratively. Medicine is also collaborative in nature. You’ll have a team of doctors, nurses and others working together to care for a patient. So we’ll be exploring innovation and collaboration in those two fields.

arts and medicine
An earlier arts and medicine Wintersession seminar took place in Harvard Art Museums.
What do you think students can learn about art and medicine in a day?
There are many components to this Wintersession, and so I think it’ll help introduce students to many different topics. We'll frame it in the beginning about the parallels between medicine and the art in general, and then students can choose to explore different areas. There are two workshop sessions. We encourage them to do one of them in the galleries, and one of them in the classroom – and end with some music and reflection.

What do you hope participants will take away from your workshops?
I hope that students learn ways of thinking outside of linear thinking. I hope that students continue to embrace the art form that they have, but also that they're more open to new art forms. I hope students feel invited to associate with things that they're familiar with while looking at art –for example, having a premed student look at art and think about resilience or creativity. I've been lucky to see some of the students who have gone to my Wintersession come back as medical students. They come up to me and say, “You know, I went to this Wintersession two years ago.” They remember the experience fondly.
See also: Wintersession