Focus on Arts: Can art make better doctors?

Dr. Irwin Braverman wants to teach medical students to be more like Sherlock Holmes.

"Doctors have this problem: They often reach conclusions based on very little information," said Braverman, a professor emeritus of dermatology at Yale Medical School. "And then, they tend to pick out the details that support the conclusion they have already come to and ignore the other details."

After noting that some students had trouble observing, Braverman took his students to look at art to practice their observation skills. Fourteen years and several studies later, Braverman and the Yale Center for British Art have successfully developed an arts and medical course that is now a requirement for first-year medical students.

Braverman will be in Chattanooga this week as part of a panel called "Healthy Partners: Why the Arts Matter to Medicine" - a discussion during the Arts Education Partnership's National Forum that will focus on how arts education can help train medical students to be better observers.

The goal of the programs, and the more than 20 others that have developed across the nation since Yale founded its program, is to jump-start the process of developing the skills needed to face unknown medical problems, Braverman said.

"When you go to medical school, you memorize almost everything, and then the next time you see it, you know what it is," he said. "What we [faculty] have done is always point out, 'If you see this, it means X,' or 'If you see this, it means Y.' But if they encounter Z and there's not a professor there telling them, they don't know what it means."

The panel will include Diana Beckmann-Mendez, assistant professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center, and Alexa Miller, co-creator of Harvard Medical School's Training the Eye Program, who will also moderate the discussion. Miller said the Harvard program was developed through Visual Thinking Strategies, a learning program that promotes critical thinking through art.

"Helping doctors learn how to look is something that is notoriously hard to teach in medical schools," Miller said. "Art is one place where these skills are easily developed."

Medical students are put through a 12-week intensive program that includes museum visits, a drawing course and clinical observations, she said. Over the course, students are challenged to look at all aspects of a work of art and a patient before trying to diagnose or define, which can be challenging for many students, especially in the medical field.

"It can be really hard to learn to look at something and describe it in a context where there's many different kinds of pressure to define it," Miller said.

Daniel Stetson, executive director of the Hunter Museum of American Art who will introduce the panel, said many times people discount the benefits arts education can have.

"Sometimes people don't perceive all that art can do for a community," he said. "Art museums are not the quiet, dusty places people think they are. They are living, breathing places."

In Chattanooga, arts have been incorporated into medicine in a variety of ways.

The Hunter Museum used to have a partnership with the University of Tennessee for a program that integrated arts education into medical education. The program was discontinued because of a lack of funding.

Adera Causey, curator of education at the Hunter Museum who helped found the program, said one of the crucial parts of the program was teaching the students to be more attentive to not only the way they observed patients, but also in the way they interacted with patients when delivering bad news.

"We all know what the difference is between a doctor who cares and a doctor who is knowledgeable but distant," Causey said. "It encouraged them to look harder and be more observant."

The program focused on visual literacy as well as kinetic observances, integrating visual arts and theater curricula into the medical field.

"It was beneficial to everyone, and the doctors and the students were totally on board," Causey said.

At Memorial Hospital, as a part of a holistic approach to healing, the hospital uses both visual art and music to provide comfort to patients.

"They can calm, they can actually calm and relax the body," said Patricia Partain, a registered dietitian and community outreach coordinator at Memorial. "All of that's important. Here at our hospital, we believe healing involves all parts of the mind, the body and the spirit."

Braverman said that art education was beneficial to doctors on many levels, but one of the most important was the transferable skills that were learned through it.

"These narrative paintings, they tell a story," he said. "Once you can see that, you can see it with anything. You know how to look for the details."