Smart doctors

A Pritzker School of Medicine course teaches observation skills through the study of art.

By Asher Klein, AB’11
Photography by Jason Smith

Studying paintings has much in common with examining patients, as a Pritzker School of Medicine elective illustrates.

The medical students gather around the patient, Mary, as a teacher waits to hear their observations. The students seem reticent, as if they can't tell what's wrong. There's a long pause while Mary, pale and motionless with an orange blanket draped over her white gown, looks up toward the sky.

The students could be excused for their hesitation. Mary is the central figure in Giuseppe Marchesi's Baroque painting The Magdalene Attended by two Angels (c. 1740–50), and to them it isn't clear what, if anything, is wrong with the Magdalene.

The doctors in training wear street clothes rather than white coats as they tour the Smart Museum's exhibit The Tragic Muse: Art and Education, 1700–1900, on an April afternoon. To diagnose Mary, they use viewfinders—tools that help to isolate parts of an artwork—rather than stethoscopes and tongue depressors. They can't ask for symptoms or the patient's history beyond what Smart Museum director of education Kristy Peterson tells them, which isn't much at first.

Perhaps the most difficult part of the exercise is that the students aren't really meant to diagnose Mary's illness. Their task is instead to explain how Mary's expression and other parts of the painting make them feel. "What's interesting to me is—that her eyes and her mouth seem to have different emotions," says one student, breaking the silence. Peterson smiles and invites the others to discuss.

The museum visit, part of a new Pritzker School of Medicine spring-quarter elective, Visual Art and Medicine: Using Art to Explore the Practice of Medicine, is designed to enhance observational skills while showing the value of art and humanistic interaction, says fourth-year medical student Laura Hodges, who planned the course with two classmates. "We often find it difficult to look at our patients and really listen to what they are saying ... and you really have to train yourself to be aware of who you are looking at and what you are hearing," says Hodges. "I hope that by doing these observation classes, it will help us to train ourselves to be more focused on the details."

What the class discusses at the museum is rarely medical; it's all about affect. As the Smart's Peterson notes, based on texts she's read in both fields, there are similarities between doctors examining patients and art historians studying works of art. "The artistic process is the same as the scientific method, if you really break it down," she says. Physicians use the SOAP documentation system—that's "Subjective, Objective, Assessment, Plan"—while museum educators sometimes use the "old school" Edmund Burke Feldman approach: "describe, analyze, interpret, and evaluate."

Peterson separates the students—the class includes 20 in their first, second, and fourth years of medical school—into groups that compile SOAP notes on a painting subject, which they report back to the class. Doctors making a diagnosis have to work faster, Peterson says, but "the art-museum component is helpful because it forces you to do something that you're maybe uncomfortable with and unfamiliar with."

When the students meet in a classroom, they discuss their favorite pieces of art on topics such as the body or empathy, and explain why they chose a particular work. For other sessions, they take a sketching class, bring in art they select, and present work they create at home.

About seven years ago Joel Schwab, who co-teaches Visual Art and Medicine with Peterson, started taking his pediatrics students to the Smart once a quarter. Hodges visited last year during her pediatrics rotation. When Peterson asked if anyone was interested in expanding the museum visits into a larger course, Hodges volunteered. With a film-production bachelor's degree from NYU, she collaborated with fellow med students Nicole Baltrushes and Celine Goetz, who also have arts backgrounds, and with Jacqueline Hendrickson, MFA'11. The class will continue for at least one more year as Hodges and Baltrushes take an extra year of medical school to finish their courses of study—each took time off to work on personal projects. Hodges hopes it remains after she graduates. The course was awarded an Arts|Science Graduate Collaboration Grant this year.

Back at the Smart, the students relax as they move through the museum, recounting information from readings and a recent lecture on the effect of art on the brain. After working their way through the exhibit, Peterson hands out cards with different instructions: "Pick a piece of art your father would have selected," for example, which went to fourth-year medical student Joseph Tasosa, who is in his psychiatry rotation. He chose a Mark Rothko.

Tasosa says the class has shown him things about art he hadn't considered before. "Looking at certain paintings, you try to guess what emotion the artist is trying to compose," he says. "It takes a lot of skill to put something you can't see or touch or feel and have someone say, 'That's anger.'" As someone more familiar with the science of emotion, Tasosa's budding appreciation for how artists work seemed a welcome addition to his education.


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