People behind numbers, people behind their disease: Using art as an additional healthcare perspective. By Hilde Buiting and Gabe Sonke

Photo of hands making a heart shape   Photo of flowers in a field   Grayscale photo of peacock   Heart drawing

The number of arty exhibitions about and from people suffering with cancer is rising. At the same time, during the last couple of years, (science in) medicine is using art increasingly too. The present contribution in Lancet Oncology1 is such an example. Using art in the scientific literature, provides new opportunities to enlighten healthcare in a new way, for instance by using illustrations or creative patient stories to shed light on healthcare differently and/or to better guide patients in their cancer journey.

In doing this, a new focus and new nuances in medicine can be made that deserve more attention too. In anthropology, researchers are more often used to incorporate art and patient stories in their work; the people described in art and patient stories are for instance often called by their name.1 Using names facilitates a more informal atmosphere through which those ‘people behind numbers’ can be more easily understood. Why is it that this increased interest in art, even (or maybe especially) in high-impact medical journals is rising? As a medical oncologist, you particularly want to ensure that your patients receive the best possible form of anti-cancer treatment. However, knowing their patient stories, e.g., their quirky characteristics, are rather important to build a connection and relationship with your patients too.

So, being up-to-date with the most recent trial data in your specific field of work is rather important.2 However, being able to develop a good atmosphere in your consultation room to ensure that your patient will be looking forward to subsequent consultations, is essential too. This latter aspect often represents and requires ‘a different level’ of communication than talking about treatment options. Reading and talking about art can be a great source of inspiration to become inspired about this latter aspect of communication. Papers in which art and patient stories are combined can serve as examples.

‘The art of loving’3 is one such example. This book, written by Erich Fromm encompasses art and relationships together.3 By stating that love is an art, e.g. something that we can learn, he motivates people to invest in relationships, since everyone, he writes, can only live within relationships. It could be argued that the interrelation between expressing art, creating artistic patient stories and interpreting and observing love as an art is rather close. In our present society however there seems less and less space for artistic expressions, partly due to digitalization and formalization, also in the context of love and relationships. By bringing more attention towards art in healthcare and fuse this perspective with other perspectives/disciplines, art could be regarded as another starting-point for better healthcare, including the quality of relationships.

Being able to easily switch from an artistic perspective towards a more concrete, medical perspective will probably make you a much better doctor/healthcare professional. Intuitively, you may already act like this on the basis of personal experiences and the many patients you have seen as a healthcare professional. However, the present and augmented interest in art in medicine also seems to show that a more individualistic society as we are having right now, may benefit from a touch of art to be able to stay connected with each other: In every circumstance.

We believe every medical journal would benefit from a small touch of art. This perspective adds to other stories and research such as psycho-social and medical research. Using art as an additional, creative way of thinking besides our medical perspective, may sometimes be exactly what we need: To ensure high-quality discussions about making decisions surrounding anti-cancer treatment or other decisions that need to be made during the different stages of a cancer disease trajectory.


  1. Montel L, Di Carlo V, Minicozzi P, et al. The people behind the numbers: Women with breast cancer. Lancet Oncology (2023).
  2. Yau C, Osdoit M, van der Noordaa M, et al. Residual cancer burden after neoadjuvant chemotherapy and long-term survival outcomes in breast cancer: a multicentre pooled analysis of 5161 patients. Lancet Oncology (2022);23(1):149-60.
  3. Fromm E. The art of loving: Harper Collins Publishers 1956.


Photo of Hilde Buiting

Dr. Hilde Buiting

Dr. Buiting is a doctor in training and researcher working for Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, the University of Amsterdam and O2PZ, Platform of Palliative Care.

Photo of Gabe Sonke

Prof. Gabe Sonke

Prof. Sonke is a medical oncologist and cancer epidemiologist working at Antoni van Leeuwenhoek/Netherlands Cancer Institute and affiliated to the University of Amsterdam.

Declaration of interests

We have read and understood the BMJ Group policy on declaration of interests and declare the following interests: None. 

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