Claude Monet. Water Lilies, 1906. The Art Institute of Chicago.

Claude Monet. Water Lilies, 1906. The Art Institute of Chicago.

So much – perhaps too much – is made of the struggle between those who are left-brained (linear thinkers) and those who are right-brained (holistic thinkers). On one side of the brain, the left, you will find those motivated by logic. On the other, the right, people are more motivated by emotive gut instinct.

But that doesn't mean that there cannot exist a literal meeting of the mind – or minds – by providing those in the science-based medical field with a respite founded in the arts. During this stressful pandemic, the need is clear.

Enter Rx/Museum, a pilot program of the Department of Anesthesiology and Critical Care at Penn Medicine in partnership with the Health Ecologies Lab at the University of Pennsylvania.

Aaron Levy, PhD (University of Pennsylvania), and Lyndsay Hoy, MD (Penn Medicine), are the faculty directors of the virtual program that delivers emailed artworks and reflections to its 1,100+ subscribers. These artworks – via partnerships with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Barnes Foundation, and Slought Foundation (run by Dr. Levy on the Penn campus) — arrive every Monday for a year.

Since its launch in July 2020, Rx/Museum has received positive press from numerous outlets, including The Washington Post.

“Fundamentally, it's an attempt to bridge the arts and humanities with medicine,” said Dr. Levy, a senior lecturer in the Departments of English and History of Art who teaches and writes about social medicine and equity in health care and society. “These are two disciplines that Lyndsay and I like to think of as sharing something fundamental in common – a focus on caregiving and helping their communities.

“Our collaboration in this project extends to other clinicians, trainees, undergraduates at Penn, PhD students, and museum educators, all of whom help to write the weekly pieces. It's really a beautiful and unique process.”

“In a time when visiting a museum or attending a workshop is a juggling act for physicians, the Rx/Museum initiative is the right fit.”

Personal view

Dr. Hoy, an Illinois native who completed her training at Penn, graduated in 2016, and remained on faculty, said the project holds a different meaning for everyone on the team. Dr. Hoy's personal and professional clinical experiences shaped the way she is impacted by Rx/Museum.

Dr. Hoy explained she was diagnosed with an extremely rare, progressive lung disease, lymphangioleiomyomatosis (LAM) during her residency. “In effect, I was having to deal with both the demands of training and the emotional experience of my disease. It was overwhelming and traumatic and, oftentimes, lonely,” she said.

Dr. Hoy also realizes that, while she has a rare diagnosis, others are dealing with their own struggles in the profession at large.

“Rx/Museum is very personal for me,” she said. “It has provided a sense of community and a creative outlet, not only to learn about the arts, but perhaps to find more nuanced ways to think about caregiving through the lens of visual art.”

As an anesthesiologist and a rare disease patient, Dr. Hoy gained deeper insight and a heightened awareness of the need for this initiative. She believes the arts can be utilized to address the struggles of so many right now.

Building bridges

Dr. Levy, an art historian interested in practices of caregiving, said the project also has deep meaning for him. His work often involves bringing faculty and students together for discussion of topical issues, so the Rx/Museum's cultivation of reflection really spoke to him.

“Each artwork also becomes a lens to understand the world – its inequities, promises, and challenges,” he said.

Dr. Levy said that includes the many questions raised by the pandemic itself: “This project is an amazing opportunity to reflect on what we value as a caregiving community as we work through the many issues facing health care in this country.”

Unique evolution

Just like a movie altered from the book, the original script has changed, with COVID-19 being the major impetus. The project originally began as an attempt to create interdisciplinary connections but has bloomed over the course of the pandemic into an emotional wellness experience, helping clinicians reflect on illness, death, and more.

Dr. Hoy said she believes the pandemic has illuminated self-care and well-being as a priority for all front-line workers, not just anesthesiologists. She hopes the Rx/Museum provides a sense of community during this isolating time.

In a time when visiting a museum or attending a workshop is a juggling act for physicians, the Rx/Museum initiative is the right fit. “What sets Rx/Museum apart from other approaches that bring together the arts and medicine is that we bring the museum to the clinician,” said Dr. Hoy. “We are not asking physicians to spend three to four hours in a gallery or even to join a virtual lecture.”

Future plans

Since discussing personal struggles is still often stigmatized and resisted, Drs. Hoy and Levy hope the weekly art selections serve as a way to facilitate these important conversations. They believe the Rx/Museum can become a healthy way for front-line clinicians to process the incredible toll of the pandemic.

As successful as the takeoff has been for the project, the flight has just begun. Both Drs. Hoy and Levy see clear skies ahead. They said they are now shifting focus to measuring the qualitative and quantitative impact of this weekly dose of art. Plans for expansion now include a patient-facing portal and a subscriber community outside of Penn.

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