An art appreciation program helps med students and young physicians sharpen their soft skills
Future doctor Drew Maynard has sat through hundreds of hours of biology classes, studying the human body, quite literally, inside and out. However, on this evening, the second-year University of Arizona medical student is studying works of fine art on the walls of the Phoenix Art Museum. Educators say it will help him become a better doctor.
“When you look at artwork, it becomes very apparent that everyone sees art from their own lens, and that may or may not be what you see,” says Patti Thorn, education specialist at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix, who helped create the optional art workshop for first- to third-year med students and residents.
During one of the exercises, Kathryn Blake, education director at the museum, instructs half of her students to sit facing away from a painting. The other half study it and describe what they see while their partner draws it. The first piece of art shows a basic room with familiar objects – a table by a window, and outside the window, a ship aloft on an ocean. The next painting is abstract, and quickly, those tasked with drawing realize they need to listen differently. “You had to trust the person more with the abstract art because it was harder to envision. You had to take their word for it,” Maynard says afterward.
The exercise is meant to help foster clearer communication for medical students, a skill that will no doubt come in handy when interacting with patients. “When you’re taking information in, what are you filtering?” Blake asks. “It gets the students to think about how to order information, what to convey first. Does the word you use mean the same thing to the person hearing it?”
Maynard, 27, says he can see how this exercise would translate into clarifying a patient’s choice of descriptive words. “You have to define qualities, so when someone tells you they have pain, you’d want to ask, ‘Is it sharp? Is it burning? Is it pressure?’ It can be a whole lot of things, so you need to dive in to where the patient is coming from rather than take things at face value.”
First-year medical student and future pediatrician Sindhu Pandurangi, 21, says her takeaway was about trust. “Trusting the other person you’re working with is giving you accurate information, that you can build off that information and understand, that is really important.”
In another exercise, Blake led the students to an exhibit deep within the museum. Then she gave them a pencil and paper and asked them to write down everything they could remember about the various art works they passed. “At that point, you realized how much you were or weren’t paying attention,” remembers Dr. Arya Nabavieh, who took the class as a first-year resident. “It was an interesting exercise of self-realization.”
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