From left: Resident physician Ritika Dutta, medical student Julia Foote, attending physician Vinod Nambudiri and resident Andrew Qi create a group poem together as part of a team-building exercise at the MassArt Art Museum in 2022. The group is surrounded by a colorful installation by Portuguese sculptor Joana Vasconcelos. (Photos by Corinne Zimmermann.)

What do Renaissance paintings and Mesoamerican sculpture have in common with treating blood clots and infections? More than you might expect.

For nearly 15 years, groups of physicians and nurses from the Brigham’s Integrated Teaching Unit (ITU) on Braunwald Tower 16AB have fostered interdisciplinary collaboration in a distinctly creative way: Once a month, they visit a local museum, where they work with Corinne Zimmermann, EdM, a museum educator, to interpret art together and participate in other teambuilding activities.

“When the facilitator asks for our perspectives on a piece of art, I might say something totally different than another nurse or doctor,” said nurse Chris Kayata, RN. “It really brings home that we each have a different view on things — whether it’s a piece of art or a patient. We are one medicine unit, but there’s not always one answer. There is an art to what we do.”

The program is one of several under the Department of Medicine’s Center for Visual Arts in Healthcare (CVAH), which provides visual arts education to clinicians, trainees and students to cultivate empathetic, resourceful and collaborative health care teams.

Foreground, from left: Residents Adewunmi Adelaja and Alberto Muniz Rodriguez, along with resident Alice Tzeng (background), participate in an art exercise at the Museum of Fine Arts earlier this year.

CVAH was established in 2022 to unify several pioneering arts-related programs at the Brigham, starting over 20 years ago with “Training the Eye: Improving the Art of Physical Diagnosis,” a Harvard Medical School course co-directed by Joel Katz, MD, who now co-leads the center with Brooke DiGiovanni Evans, EdM, director of Visual Arts Education.

By nurturing interprofessional team dynamics, the ITU museum program seeks to enhance the patient experience and help dismantle hierarchies between different clinical roles.

“Looking at art in a museum engages both our cognitive and emotional domains,” said hospitalist Mary E.L. Thorndike, MD, who helped establish the program in 2009 while serving as the unit’s then-medical director. “The workshops open up space for people to connect a little bit more with the emotional aspects of patient care.”

Moving Reflections

At the start of each month, an interprofessional ITU team of attending physicians, residents and nurses join Zimmermann at the museum for dinner, followed by two hours of activities there. These may include sharing a story about your name, participating in a guided conversation about a select piece of art, drawing together, creating and performing group poems, and a free-choice activity that invites reflection and stories.

Zimmermann’s exact curriculum varies each time, but her goal is always the same: “to help the group develop their team learning environment and culture early on.”

She uses an inquiry-based teaching method to engage beginner viewers of art. “As a facilitator, my job is to create a team environment of respect, openness and belonging where everyone feels welcome and nourished,” she explained.

Palliative medicine physician Andrew Lawton, MD, who has participated as an attending in several ITU museum workshops, said his favorite activity is the final one of the night, where everyone chooses a work of art that resonates with a joy or a struggle they’re currently facing in their practice.

“The facilitators do a really nice job of creating a safe space, so you feel comfortable sharing,” he said. “I always come away from the evening feeling more bonded with the team and with a deeper appreciation for the nuance, skill and lens each team member brings to the clinical work.”

Zimmermann, who recently co-authored a book featuring the ITU program, agreed that the “joys and struggles” activity is especially powerful.

“It’s pretty moving how vulnerable people are willing to be,” she said. “When people share their stories, you can feel the group just holding one another.”

Now under the leadership of Herrick (Cricket) Fisher, MD, current ITU medical director, the museum workshops continue to have a positive impact on individuals, teams and even patients, according to participants.

“I’m a big cheerleader for the program,” said Linda Delaporta, MSN, RN, NEA-BC, interim senior nurse director for the ITU, who regularly encourages her staff to participate. “It takes away the doctor-nurse hierarchy and increases the camaraderie of the multidisciplinary team. After participating in the workshop, we no longer look at each other as ‘the nurse,’ ‘the nurse director,’ ‘the intern,’ ‘the resident’ — we are all just people. You can feel the change. It’s palpable.”