03/16/2015 08:00 EDT | Updated 05/16/2015 05:59 EDT

"Heartfelt" art making UBC med students better doctors

At UBC's Faculty of Medicine, students are being encouraged to produce art inspired by the human body to make them better doctors .

"Art making can be really instrumental in making students more well rounded and empathetic doctors," says Carol-Ann Courneya, who teaches cellular and physiological sciences at UBC.

The "Heartfelt Images" art contest encourages first-year medical students to create sculptures, photographs, drawings and paintings inspired by the organ the heart. 

Artistic representations of the heart

Courneya founded the contest in 2001, after being inspired at an educational conference by someone using photography to compel critical thinking. She asked her students to take photos that could artistically conceptualize what they were learning about the heart.

Some took photos of gnarled logs with their middle hollowed out and compared them to a particular heart condition. Other works simulated varicose veins with branches of trees.

The power of the project sunk in for Courneya when a student asked if she could submit something other than a photograph. She brought in an semi-abstract oil painting called "Heart Sounds", which showed a heart morphing into a violin.

"It was absolutely stunning and it brought me to tears," she says. "It was such a beautiful piece of art."

Medical students benefit by creating art 

Research shows that when medical students are exposed to art it increases their ability to make clinical observations and improves reasoning, says Courneya. It can also help develop their empathy and deal with stress.

"Medical students, residents, and even practising physicians are telling us that they're using art to decompress from the stress of medical training," she says, adding that they're also using it to link specifically to their own humanity and to help them bear witness to the suffering of others.

This is the last year the contest will focus on the cardiac theme. Next year the art contest will incorporate other parts of the body.