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Keeping your heart in medicine

Harnessing art for burnout prevention

October 2018

Published in the October 2018 issue of Today’s Hospitalist

SINCE SHE WAS A CHILD, hospitalist Cheryl O’Malley, MD, residency program director at the University of Arizona College of Medicine Phoenix, has been making art. She’s maintained that creativity throughout her medical career, working mainly now in mosaics and mixed media.

Her passion for art was one reason she was intrigued when the National Academy of Medicine sent out a call for artwork to be considered for an exhibit at a May 2, 2018, meeting in Washington, D.C. That meeting would help launch the academy’s Action Collaborative on Clinician Well-Being and Resilience, and the artwork—much of it by clinicians—would explore their experiences with burnout and finding meaning in medicine.

“It turned out that the deadline for submissions was just after the wellness week we planned to hold for our graduate medical education programs,” says Dr. O’Malley, who is also interim vice dean for academic affairs. “I suggested to the other program directors that we invite faculty, residents and fellows to each write down on a paper heart what keeps their heart in medicine. They took that idea and ran with it.”

Dr. O’Malley then took 180 of those hearts and affixed each to a three-by-three-inch canvas that had been painted as part of a team effort. She then transcribed each of the written messages, gluing the typed text on top of each heart.

After doing more shading, she attached all the painted squares with hearts to a big board, while her father—a retired neonatologist and an expert woodworker—built a wooden frame for what ended up being a four-by-five foot art piece.

Entitled “HeARTs in Medicine,” the work debuted at the end of the wellness week in Phoenix. Photos of the piece taken by then third-year internal medicine resident Robert Koch, MD, were submitted to the National Academy of Medicine, and “HeARTs” was one of 30 works chosen out of 350 submissions to be exhibited at the May meeting. It is now one of 10 pieces chosen as part of the academy’s traveling exhibit.

As for Dr. O’Malley’s own experience with burnout, “We all know someone who’s been affected, many with more subtle versions of not being as happy or as engaged as you once were.” She also knew a medical school classmate who, once in practice, committed suicide.

“I feel a responsibility to help normalize those feelings and increase awareness of resources,” Dr. O’Malley says. One of the best things to come out of the “HeARTs” creation, she adds, was being able to attend the Washington, D.C., meeting to show the piece.

“The National Academy’s collaborative is doing a lot to address the complexity of this issue,” says Dr. O’Malley. ” ‘Resilience’ is just scratching the surface. It’s a really broad topic we need the whole health system to look at, not just for physicians, but for all health care workers.”

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