BEAM: Practicing Medicine with Empathy

Clinicians sharpen their emotional attention with patients through a web-based visual art collection.

“Medical students have an easier time discussing emotionally charged topics when they are approached on a slant, not directly,” says Dr. Margaret (Meg) Chisolm, Professor and Vice Chair for Education at the Johns Hopkins Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

As an educator, Chisolm sees a hyper-focus on disease processes, leaving the human experience side of medicine out of balance.

In 2018, Chisolm partnered with colleague Dr. Susan Lehmann, Director of the Johns Hopkins Geriatric Psychiatry Day Hospital Program to conceptualize an app that would aid clinicians in facilitated reflection with patients through art.

Requirements gathering for the solution brought Chisolm and Lehmann to the Technology Innovation Center for software design and development. The TIC team built Bedside Education in the Art of Medicine (BEAM) as a responsive web application with open source visual art and poems linked to common medical circumstances.

Using BEAM, clinicians browse a collection of art by theme with the goal of selecting a piece that directly relates to the patient. The care team takes a moment to collaboratively reflect on the image together.

“The art or poem becomes this object out in space that’s not about me or you,” says Chisolm. “It leads to discussion without feeling vulnerable and allows people to reflect more deeply and quickly.”

Led by Dr. Tina Zhang, Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine, BEAM was piloted with four inpatient teams at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. Clinical teams leveraged BEAM during the pilot to debrief and think about patients in a more holistic manner.

“The actual app was very well developed by the TIC team, so it was easy to navigate and use,” says Zhang.

Ease of use for busy clinicians was top of mind in the development of BEAM. Chisolm and Lehmann selected less ambiguous art for the collection that require little time to identify themes. The solution offers a reflective prompt with each work of art for conversational support.

Chisolm hopes BEAM will improve doctor-patient communications by making physicians curious about the human experience of illness.

“I want them to go back and ask more about their patients’ lives, families, education, work, and community,” says Chisolm. “These are all factors related to physical and mental health outcomes.”

BEAM is intended to be used in particularly challenging situations, resetting the tone for a care team and serving as a reminder that the patient should always at the center. It creates an opportunity for clinicians to talk about patients in a way that humanizes them.

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