Introduction: The arts and humanities have transformative potential for medical education. Realizing this potential requires an understanding of what arts and humanities teaching is and what it aims to do. A 2016 review of exclusively quantitative studies mapped three discursive positions (art as intrinsic to, additive to or curative for medicine) and three epistemic functions (art for mastering skills, perspective taking, and personal growth and activism). A more inclusive sample might offer new insights into the position and function of arts and humanities teaching in medical education. Methods: Informed by this 2016 framework, we conducted discursive and conceptual analyses of 769 citations from a database created in a recent scoping review. We also analyzed the 15 stakeholder interviews from this review for recurring themes. These three analyses were iteratively compared and combined to produce a model representing the complex relationship among discursive functions and learning domains. Results: The literature largely positioned arts and humanities as additive to medicine and focused on the functions of mastering skills and perspective taking. Stakeholders emphasized the intrinsic value of arts and humanities and advocated their utility for social critique and change. We offer a refined theory of practice—the Prism Model of four functions (mastering skills, perspective taking, personal insight and social advocacy)—to support more strategic use of arts and humanities in medical education across all learning domains. Discussion: The Prism Model encourages greater pedagogical flexibility and critical reflection in arts and humanities teaching, offering a foundation for achieving its transformative potential.
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