Medical students undergo rigorous training before they can become doctors—years of internships, residencies and classes, all preparing them to know the human body and the many things that can go wrong with it. So why do they take time out of their busy schedules to attend a class at an art museum? The Museum and the University of Alabama at Birmingham have partnered to put into practice new research showing how studying art can help medical students become better doctors and provide better patient care. Here are three things you may not have known about how art and science are working together.
- Research shows that participating in a close study of visual arts can improve clinical observation skills.
This idea began with Dr. Irwin Braverman from Yale University. In 1998, he began taking his medical students to the on-campus art gallery to work on their observational skills. Several studies by Braverman and others suggest that this practice improved students’ ability to notice details and use the whole picture to make a conclusion.
Stefanie Rookis, curator at the Alabama Museum of Health Sciences, said the goal of such classes is to “improve the observational skills of medical students and physicians by studying visual arts so that those honed observational skills can improve description, interpretation and ultimately diagnosis.”
- Medical students benefit from viewing both representational and nonrepresentational art.
It might seem like the best way to increase observational skills would be to study realistic art, but research shows both naturalistic and abstract art can help. A 2013 study found that in representational art, students focused on identifying recognizable forms and contextual information. In non-representational art, students improved pattern identification. Both skills are necessary to understanding symptoms and deciding on a diagnosis for a patient.
- The Museum and UAB are working together to encourage students to improve these skills.
The UAB School of Medicine offers a Special Studies Course, Art in Medicine: Using the Visual Arts to Improve Observational Skills, first developed by Dr. Stephen Russell and inspired by Braverman’s research. It meets one week during the fall and spring semesters, and has been going on for 10 semesters. Rookis helps with the course and accompanies students during visits to the Museum as well as the Museum of Health Sciences, located on UAB’s campus.
During the last week of April, UAB medical students participating in the class filled the Museum’s galleries, working with the Education Department and other mentors to dig deeper into the art on display. Works included Erasistratus the Physician Discovers the Love of Antiochus for Stratonice by Benjamin West, student choices in the Italian art galleries and more. In addition to discussing the pieces, the students also sketched their own versions in notebooks and wrote about what they saw.
“By taking the time to thoroughly evaluate all aspects of the art, the intent is that they can make stronger conclusions of the subject matter and even some medical conditions that are deliberately or even unintentionally featured in art and then use it in their medical work with patients,” Rookis said.