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Toronto Star: Practising the art of healing

Written by Francine Kopun and published in Toronto Star on December 28, 2021

“Every branch of medicine has its challenges. In palliative care, it’s the burden of bad news that weighs heavy on physicians.

We’re often at the table when people are told the most devastating news that they’ll ever hear in their lives,”

Dr. Warren Lewin, site lead for palliative care at Toronto Western Hospital in the University Health Network.

“Other medical specialties have the happy balance of confirming a pregnancy or announcing that a disease is in remission. Palliative care physicians deal with people in their final, most vulnerable moments.

“Helping practitioners in the field develop resilience against burnout is essential.

“So when Lewin learned about a program at Harvard Museums to introduces physicians to looking deeply at fine art as a way of managing stress, he reached out to the Art Gallery of Ontario.

“The practice is sometimes referred to as “close looking,” and involves spending more time with a work of art than the average 3-10 seconds that is the norm for most people walking through a museum. It includes sitting quietly with a piece, contemplating it as a whole and in its parts, total about the thoughts, ideas and emotions the work inspires.

“It’s not about learning what school it belongs to or the year it was painted – although that information is available to participants. It’s about experiencing the artwork fully, in a way that pushes aside everyday concerns and sharpens and appreciation for beauty generally.

“The goal is to help physicians learn to relax with art and to think in new and more creative ways.

“Lewin reached out to the AGO in January 2020. Melissa Smith, assistant curator of community programs, put togehter a program for physicians that was ready to roll into the museum, just before COVID-19 broke. It ended up being conducted via Zoom in June 2020.

“It was so popular Smith has held three more.

“The AGO uses a variety of artworks to drive discussion. The first piece in the first session put together was Tom Thomson’s “The West Wind”. Melissa Smith said she wanted to start with something that might be familiar to participants. Later, when they are more comfortable, she throws in works that might be regarded as less representational and more challenging, like Kazuo Nakamura’s “Blue Reflections”, 1962.

“Burnout among doctors has been exacerbated by the demands COVID-19 placed on the profession, says Lewin.

“During the pandemic, his work-load increased so much he felt like he was working 24-7. He was falling asleep at his desk. Any semblance of balance had disappeared from his live. It took his partner to point it out.

“Dr. Lewin and Dr. Grossman say preventing burnout among palliative care physicians is critical because the field is understaffed a problem likely to worsen as the population ages.