Helen Hou: The Art of Compassionate Health Care

By Jyoti Madhusoodanan

Helen Hou

To first-year pharmacy student Helen Hou, creating art is a way of connecting to patients, caregivers, and her community.

“It’s not always intuitive to see art and pharmacy combined, but many of the soft skills are similar,” said Hou. “You have to be very observant, for example, and present information in a way that another person can relate to and understand.”

Hou draws inspiration for her art from her environment. Even as a child, Hou was keenly aware of social and health disparities in her community. A San Francisco native, Hou grew up in the Chinatown neighborhood, and recalls seeing a wide spectrum of lifestyles: her immigrant neighbors who spoke little English, wealthy tourists and locals with vastly different levels of education and access to information.  

Hou’s interest in pharmacy began in her sophomore year of high school, when she shadowed a clinical pharmacist working in the critical care department at San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center. “I remember watching her interact with patients with so much compassion,” said Hou. “I really understood the meaning of being a good provider then.”

Although she’d been practicing art all her life and was interested in health care, Hou began to see the strong parallels between her two interests during college, where she majored in studio arts while completing her pre-pharmacy curriculum.

Hou's "Pillhead" art installation draws viewers' eyes to the stigma associated with substance abuse. Photo by Helen Hou

Walking to classes past people who were homeless or suffering substance abuse problems compelled her to create arresting art installations that would capture their emotions – but also help her classmates and community understand these issues.

“People who tend to be substance users are at a higher risk of clinical depression and other mental health problems, but substance abuse is so stigmatized it can be difficult for them to get the help they need,” said Hou. “I was using art as a medium to increase awareness in my professional community – to make them stop, look and consider some of these issues.”

As an artist and a pharmacist, Hou wants to hone her observational skills and continue practicing the art of empathy, whether capturing emotion in art or discussing a patient’s prescriptions. “I hope to provide genuinely patient-centered care. I will never flatten a patient to a few characteristics of their condition.” 

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