ARTZ at Jeff: Creating a New Paradigm for Empowerment at the Intersection of Arts, Dementia, and Healthcare

This post was written by Cara Jo Swetsky of Jefferson Corporate Communications.

Thomas Jefferson University
believes that for healthcare trainees, clinical practice is an art as well as a science and that empathy is a process of authentic dialogue and relationship-building that cannot be taught through textbooks. Over the years, Jefferson has been deeply committed to exploring innovative, arts-based methods for growing and sustaining empathy in our students.

Artz at Jeff class looking at art.A collaboration between Jefferson and ARTZ Philadelphia, ARTZ at Jeff pairs students with mentors who are living with a dementia-related diseases and/or their caregiver for six to eight weeks. Through this initiative, students spend extended time with their mentors — observing and discussing artwork at local museums and more — while simultaneously learning from them what it means to live with dementia — not as patients, but as people.

Because of the symptoms associated with dementia — memory loss, difficulty communicating and confusion — patients often become voiceless and marginalized by society. ARTZ at Jeff reverses the traditional provider-patient hierarchy and enlists people with dementia as the teachers and mentors.

“The focus on the program’s mentor-student relationship is completely unique in this context of arts-centered engagement that grows into an extended relationship between health professionals and people living with dementia over time,” said Susan Shifrin, Founding Director, ARTZ Philadelphia and Director of ARTZ at Jeff. “We are truly honored to be partnering in this very meaningful, rich way with Jefferson.”

The program also engages caregivers as mentors, amplifying the voices of those in roles too often under-recognized by society. The structure of ARTZ at Jeff creates a safe space for them to enjoy creative respite and serves as validation that they are helping to shape the emotional skills of the next generation of healthcare providers.

For students, the program serves as an “inoculation” against the future loss of empathy that sometimes occurs when they enter the clinical setting. It also offers an opportunity to stay connected with the interpersonal part of medicine that drew them into choosing a career in health care to begin with.

“We work to develop and implement creative instruction for students that plays into the important intersection between art, health care and wellness,” said Megan Voeller, Director of Humanities in the Office of Student Life and Engagement. “Our basic principle is that the arts provide a rich context for practicing habits of emotional intelligence — empathy prominent among them — that are essential to clinical practice.”

“As a medical student, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by how much you need to learn, and you often forget why you chose medicine — for the people,” said Jui Desai, first-year Sidney Kimmel Medical College student and ARTZ at Jeff participant. “ARTZ at Jeff is an incredibly unique program that reminds us of the beauty of humanity in medicine and the strength of the human spirit.”

ARTZ at Jeff paves the way for students to develop a sense of safety, ease and comfort – a prerequisite to the human encounter where all present become human first,” said Flo Gelo, DMin, NCPsyA, ARTZ at Jeff co-facilitator. “Our hope is that together, we are starting to create a model for a different kind of ‘caring’ by physicians and other health professionals for people with chronic illness.”

Research has linked greater physician empathy to fewer diagnostic errors, reduced patient symptoms and increased satisfaction, and greater professional fulfillment among doctors. For health professions educators, how best to train students in practices of empathy to counteract the decline of this critical skill is an urgent national question with implications for the wellness of both patients and providers. Jefferson has been at the forefront of researching and benchmarking the clinical value of teaching empathy and embedding this training in our curriculum. The Jefferson Scale of Empathy, developed in 2001, has been used in 74 countries and translated into 55 languages.

“There is so much value in learning to communicate in new ways, ways that challenge health care providers to better accommodate needs,” said Denine Crittendon, fourth-year Master in Public Health student in the Jefferson College of Population Health and ARTZ at Jeff pilot participant. “It really helps with opening the mind and the senses to problem solving and prioritizing people in a community-minded manner.”

ARTZ at Jeff reminded me why I was in medical school by showing me that the essence of medicine is about genuinely caring for another human being,” said Jeffery Lee, first-year Sidney Kimmel Medical College student. “The program gave me a mentor and a friend who so graciously shared her story about dementia with me. She taught me that listening to another person is just as important as the medicine we prescribe to our patients.”

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