The two sides of our brain process information in distinct ways. The left hemisphere uses an analytical, logical approach while the right side generally sees life from a creative point of view. Yet, the two sides, while seemingly independent, often work together to provide the best results.

Much the same could be said about medicine and art. The former is largely left-brained while the latter relies primarily on the right side . But when the two collaborate, they can accomplish great things. “Art is the heart and soul of medicine. It helps people see the world a little differently,” said Mahendra T. Bhati, MD, of Psychiatry.

Throughout Penn Medicine, art and medicine interact on many levels, improving clinical skills, promoting healing, and providing a better hospital experience for patients and visitors alike.

Art Brings Comfort and Calm


Art can have a calming effect. “It helps people perceive the world, and what we perceive can influence how we feel,” said Bhati, who studied art before attending medical school. “If people see a happy picture, they feel happy.” 

Walking into and through the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine, one cannot help but notice the profusion of art. Three-dimensional sculptures hang from the atrium’s ceiling while others bring a sense of comfort to its upper level. Each year, as part of the annual Celebration of Art and Life Exhibition, over 100 pieces of framed art and photography created by staff, patients and friends line the walls of the Perelman Center and the Penn Tower Bridge. This year's exhibition starts next month. 

“Art inspires hope,” said Marsha Moss, a public arts curator who helped guide the integration of arts into both the Perelman Center and Smilow Research Center. “It warms the environment with color and form and humor, creating a sense of well-being and energy for patients, staff, and visitors.”


While the love of art is clearly subjective, it can also bring people together. For example, the 25 large images representing the “Impressions of Philadelphia” (left) will be permanently displayed in public areas of the new Pavilion for Advanced Care at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center. “These types of photos resonate with a diverse body of patients,” Bhati said. “They help people feel more a part of the community.”

Art is especially important on patient-care units. “A patient is put into a room with no comfort possessions, such as family pictures, and given a wristband with a barcode,” Bhati said. “Art provides that comfort and brings in the humanistic element.”

The art work in HUP’s neurosurgical ICU transformed its public areas, including the waiting room and consultation room (where families receive critical information about loved ones). “It contributes to the environment of healing,” said M. Sean Grady, MD, chair of Neurosurgery, “helping our patients and families through the recovery process.”

Art Expresses How We Feel

When words fail us, art can help. “Evidence suggests that simply expressing how we feel is beneficial,” Bhati said. “The nonverbal aspects of what individuals experience, such as feelings and abstract emotions, are a perfect medium for artistic expression.”

At Pennsylvania Hospital, the “Walkabout: Looking in, Looking Out” program uses mindfulness-based art therapy to help “free” cancer patients. Given the loss of control and fear it generates, cancer can block out other parts of a patient’s life, said Caroline Peterson, the board-certified art therapist who runs the program. “Patients come here with full lives and rich histories but cancer puts them in a box and they contract around it,” she said. “Art helps them see that they are less ‘of the disease’ and more themselves. They feel more capable and in control of their lives.”



Heather Huberty, the creative arts facilitator at Chester County Hospital, leads a weekly art therapy support group for cancer patients. The group recently designed and photographed a calendar entitled “Pearls of Wisdom.” Reflecting on their individual cancer journeys, “each participant created a photograph as a visual representation of their underlying courage, strength and dignity,” she said. “Their ‘pearls of wisdom’ for dealing with cancer are written with their photos…. I’m continually amazed at the power creating has on healing and wellness.”

Art therapy may also help improve the quality of life for patients with dementia. A Penn study reviewing previous research on art interventions found that creating and appreciating art may improve the mood and daily activities of Alzheimer’s patients.

Art therapy also benefits hospice patients and their loved ones. At Penn’s Wissahickon Hospice, Sarah Abramovitz uses art “to open conversations in a safe manner” between patients and family members. Drawing, she said, “is a release of tensions and emotions. Children might draw a memory or an emotion. Patients use art to help process their fears about dying.”


Art helps in the grieving process as well. “Children especially need a way to express their grief,” Abramovitz said. She spoke of a three-year-old child who was deeply affected by his father’s recent death. Together she and the young boy drew a picture of his father on several sheets of taped-together paper (left). “He started with describing what his father’s face looked like as I drew. Then he drew a large body,” she said. “Then I traced the child’s hands on sheets of paper and used them for his dad’s hands. We did the same with his feet.”

The turning point for the young child came when Abramovitz taped the full drawing to the wall. “It was a huge moment. His face lit up and he was jumping for joy. He needed something visual to connect with this dad,” she said. “He hugged the drawing and talked to it and engaged his mom in the moment, too.”

Art Teaches Observation

Doctors in the early 20th century didn’t have today’s advanced technology to help diagnose patients. But they had excellent observation skills. “They could read people and pick up on subtle things – such as changes in facial expression or body language,” said Horace Delisser, MD, of Pulmonary, Allergy & Critical Care, adding that, even today, “the best doctors pick up on details” when examining patients.

Can teaching medical students art observation translate into a sharpening of their clinical skills? A pilot program at the Perelman School of Medicine is investigating that possibility. In partnership with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the program taught 18 first-semester medical students the “art” of observation.

“As physicians, we often make a quick observation of patients, leading to analysis and conclusion,” Delisser explained. “But with art, the emphasis is on capturing information first, before the interpretation, analysis and conclusions.”

Will this training have a positive impact on the students’ ability to “read” patients when their clinical clerkships begin? Delisser and his colleagues are currently measuring what the students have learned, testing their observational skills in terms of art work and clinical images, and also testing their ability to read emotion in the faces of people.

“We’re hoping as students get better at mentally ‘slowing things down,’ it’ll help them look more closely at patients, as a matter of habit, rather than follow the reflexive response to hear and see quickly and move on,” Delisser said. “We want to make them more empathetic and better understand what patients are experiencing.”

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Photo captions, from top to bottom: 

Cancer patients at Pennsylvania Hospital's Walkabout: Looking in, Looking out program use art to them feel more in control of their lives.

Homologous Hope is one of many 3-dimensional sculptures in the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine.

One of the 25 large images representing the "Impressions of Philadelphia" that will be permanently displayed in the public areas of the Pavilion of Advanced Care at PPMC.

At Chester County Hospital, art helps cancer patients illustrate what spirit means to them.

Drawing a picture of his father helped in the grieving process for a three-year-old who had recently lost his father.

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