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Using paintings to explore the medical humanities in a Nepalese medical school
  1. P R Shankar1,
  2. R M Piryani2
  1. 1
    Department of Medical Education, KIST Medical College, Lalitpur, Nepal
  2. 2
    Department of Medicine, KIST Medical College, Lalitpur, Nepal
  1. Correspondence to Dr P Ravi Shankar, KIST Medical College, P.O. Box 14142, Kathmandu, Nepal; ravi.dr.shankar{at}

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Visual art has been used in medical humanities programmes in many places. Participation in art observation workshops has been shown to improve the visual diagnostic skills of medical students.

KIST Medical College is a new medical school in Lalitpur district, Nepal. A medical humanities module, Sparshanam (meaning touch in Sanskrit, the mother of most South Asian languages), for medical students is conducted for around 90 minutes on Wednesday mornings. Case scenarios, brainstorming sessions, facilitator inputs, role-plays, debates and student activities were used in the module. Paintings and associated activities were widely used. The participants were asked to brainstorm about a painting in small groups and to comment on the questions “what do you see?” and “what do you feel?” They were asked to create and recite/sing a song or a poem about the scene depicted in the painting, write a short sketch of about 100 words about the painting and explore issues depicted in the painting using role-plays.

We now describe three paintings and their associated activities in detail. The paintings are Portrait of Dr Gachet by Vincent van Gogh,1 He can no longer at the age of 98 by Francisco Goya2 and The glass of absinthe by Edgar Degas.3

The student group had to interpret the Portrait of Dr Gachet under the themes “what do you see?” and “what do you feel?” The students noted the sad and drawn out face of the doctor, the herbs lying on the table and the books. They felt sympathy and empathy for the doctor (as future doctors) and speculated about the reasons for his sadness and melancholy. Some said the doctor was suffering from a personal tragedy, others that he was overworked, badly needed a rest and the illnesses and problems of his patients were having a deleterious effect on him. The groups were unable to speculate on the significance of the herbs and the books in the painting. Herbs were among the earliest medicines. Books represent the importance of continued reading and education for doctors. These points were added by the facilitators. We used the painting to introduce the theme that a doctor should be well and in good mental and physical health before he/she can take care of patients.

He can longer at the age of 98 is an art work by the famous Spanish painter, Francisco Goya. The students’ created a 100 word story about the scene depicted in the painting. One of the groups created a story about a family afflicted by tragedy. The tragedy had killed all the members leaving behind only an old man of 98 and a young great grandson of 6-years-old. The old man is worried about his great grandson as there would be no one to take care of the boy once he dies. He knows that his death is near, his bodily functions are steadily declining and he finds it difficult to take care of himself let alone take care of the great grandson. We had used this sketch during the session on “sources of support during illness”. The helplessness and poor condition of the elderly were explored. The student group put a “different” twist on the painting and the story ends with the resolve of the old man to take care of his great grandson as long as he is alive.

The glass of absinthe is a painting by Edgar Degas. This was another painting used in the session on “sources of support during illness” The students had to create and act out a role play interpreting the scene depicted in the painting. One of the groups analysed the scene from the perspective of a person who often visits commercial sex workers. He has been diagnosed to be HIV positive and often visits bars and hotels to drink alcohol. He is fond of raksi (Nepalese country liquor). Once he met a young lady who talks to him in a sympathetic manner. She asks him why he is drinking so much and destroying his life. He tells that any way his life is doomed as he is an AIDS patient. She tells him that with proper treatment HIV/AIDS can be controlled and sufferers may be able to lead a near normal life and she will be there to provide support whenever needed.

We enjoyed using paintings during the medical humanities module. Informal feedback from the student participants was positive. They did not feel that the “western” paintings were out of place and not relevant in a Nepalese context. We have obtained formal feedback on various aspects of the module. We plan to analyse and present these in future. Paintings were able to break through social, cultural and economic barriers.

Table 1

Examples of other paintings used during Sparshanam, the medical humanities module


We acknowledge the support extended by Dr Huw Morgan, Medical Educator from the UK, to the module.



  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.