The Healing Power of Art Assists Medical and Nursing Students

The McNay Art Museum in San Antonio has had an influx of student doctors and nurses in its halls lately, but medicine is the furthest subject from their mind. They stand in groups of ten staring intently at pieces of art and discussing what they observe. Watch them and you might see them gesticulating at the art, showing their peers how they reached their conclusions. Eavesdrop on their conversation and you might hear them repeating, in their own words, what their colleagues have said, so they can be certain they understand it correctly.

The students are participating in Art Rounds, a new program at the museum that hopes to improve their visual observation and communication skills. The hope is that exercises like this will result in better patient care down the line.

Once a week for three weeks, a group of students tours the museum, discussing what they see in various pieces of art. They are required to support their observations with evidence from the artwork, and to listen carefully to one-another. The communication between the students is a critical part of the program, says Dr.Craig Klugman, professor of medical humanities at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

“The training of doctors and nurses is isolated and they don’t see or meet each other at medical and nursing school,” he explains. “So when they’re thrown together in a clinic and told to work together, they may not function and communicate as well as they could in a team situation.”

Art provides a great platform for fostering those communication skills because no one individual student is likely to be any more educated or informed about a particular piece of art than another. “No-one has expertise, and everyone is on the same page,” Klugman says. “As one student said last week, ‘We all feel equally stupid.’ That’s an advantage, because the students can begin to listen to each other respectfully.”

One of the listening techniques employed is that the students paraphrase and repeat back what others have said. It’s a subtle but effective skill, says Rose Glennon, senior museum educator. “It can help an individual clarify their statement, encourage others to comment and demonstrate that the listener is paying close attention,” she explains. “These skills will become crucial when these future doctors and nurses are interacting with patients and colleagues.”

Communication is just one of the skills that will hopefully improve as a result of Art Rounds. Another significant one is the students’ ability to observe, substantiate their observations and accept ambiguity. “Medicine has become increasingly reliant on test results and technology, so that patients become nothing more than a set of lab values on a computer screen,” says Klugman.

He’s concerned about the i-Patient, a phenomenon whereby patients are being reduced to diagnostic tests. “Doctors are treating test scores, not the patient as a whole person,” he says. That becomes an expensive habit and one that’s not always useful or necessary in a medical clinic, where good observational skills could yield more immediate, telling results.

“A lot of the things we test for have physical manifestations, but we aren’t training students to look at that,” he continues. In the absence of good observational skills, doctors tend to rely increasingly on diagnostic tests.

In Art Rounds, they get to hone their observational skills off-campus. They spend 25 minutes on a single piece of art, examining a painting as text. “The human body is another text,” says Klugman. “Our hope is that by learning to read one text, they will be able to transfer that skill to another text.”

Last year 31 students participated in Art Rounds, doing pre- and post-program tests that evaluated their observation and listening skills and their acceptance of ambiguity. “There was a major improvement in all three after the program,” says Glennon. Another 31 students are set to do the program this year.

Klugman is working on the hypothesis that after they graduate, these students will be more likely to be present with the patient in the consultation room, less likely to rely on diagnostic testing and likely to be more selective about the tests they order. “This should help to reduce health care costs, though it will be ten years before we have the data to follow this up,” he says.

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