Introducing B21 Scholar: Arielle Elkrief

Creativity as Empathy Amplifier: Avoiding Medical Resident Burnout

A longterm 2-year pilot to create protected time for medical residents in order to determine if creative relaxation helps sustain empathy and avoid burnout.

Picture me fresh out of medical school: brimming with excitement, ready to take on the challenge of residency after four years of hard work. My heart was full, and I was prepared to go to the ends of the earth to care for my patients.

My first rotation was on the medical ward, and a patient with whom I grew particularly close to died on the very last day of the four-week block. After completing the formalities, a veteran nurse found me crying in a supply closet. She put her hand on my shoulder and whispered, “Your tears meant that you cared. Don’t you ever lose that”.

Fast forward to three years later and you’ll find present-day-me: exhausted, overworked, and my empathy prone to a trade-off for dark humour and cynicism. Medical school tries to prepare us for these challenges through “Physicianship” courses or step-by-step guides on how to show compassion. But the truth is that our empathy is the first thing to be sacrificed when the going gets tough. Indeed, a study recently published in the Canadian Journal of Internal Medicine confirmed that “self-awareness is important for physicians in recognizing the symptoms of burnout. These symptoms include emotional exhaustion, a loss of empathy, cynicism, and a feeling of detachment from patients”.

My questions are: Is there a way for us to maintain our empathy without burning out? Is there a way to cultivate our empathy when we feel hardened by the challenges of a grueling training program?

My hypothesis is that the answer lies in creativity. I know that when I get behind my camera, time stands still, and I am completely immersed in the present moment, drinking in the beauty of my surroundings, and I feel kinder, softer. A fellow resident, venting after an interminable day, once told me “when my fingers sink into the keys of my piano, the armour of callousness melts away”. Indeed, when we photograph, paint, write spoken-word or play an instrument, we are compelled to remember our shared humanity and the empathic consciousness that keeps us interconnected.


We know that creativity and art therapy plays an integral role in the healing of patients with the most dismal of diagnoses such as cancer. What I hope to answer through this fellowship is: can we use creativity to foster empathy, both towards our patients and ourselves, and prevent and address physician burnout?

I am obsessed with peoples' stories. That is perhaps why I love Medicine so much. It could also explain why I was accepted for a full scholarship to study Anthropology straight out of CEGEP. Little did I know that life had other plans for me - I was accepted to medical school off the waiting list, one week before class was to start. The BLUE fellowship feels like the creative project I never got to accomplish. If accepted, I will bring my love for people and their stories and finally get to combine my passion for medicine and the arts to life.

Alex Smith