Training the Medical Eye through Art History

Dr. Susan Rather discusses medical art education in HI’s Faculty Fellows Seminar on Health, Well-Being, Healing
By Saralyn McKinnon-Crowley

In the late 1990s, dermatology Professor Irwin M. Braverman of Yale School of Medicine concluded that his medical students were relying too much on high-tech imaging and not enough on their own visual skills to diagnose skin conditions. Dr. Braverman wanted to ensure that reliance on technology did not supplant traditional diagnostic skills, and hoped that better doctor-patient interaction and keener medical observation would diminish the need for so many diagnostic tests. To help students develop their visual skills, Dr. Braverman designed, in collaboration with the education curator at the Yale Center for British Art Linda Krohner Friedlaender, an elective course in which students would study narrative paintings (paintings that tell a story) and describe the works of art as thoroughly and objectively as possible. Students received no external information about the paintings, not even painting titles. In 2001, Jacqueline Dolev—an alumna of the course—Ms. Friedlaender, and Dr. Braverman published research on the course’s effectiveness in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Students who completed the course, they reported, had improved observational skills and perceived more details about their patients compared to students who had not enrolled. These results suggest that students’ visual diagnostic abilities would have also improved, thereby boosting the efficiency of their patient care.

Inspired by the success of Yale’s program, Joel Katz, Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, and Shahram Khoshbin, Associate Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School, began teaching a similar course at Harvard Medical School, called “Training the Eye: Improving the Art of Physical Diagnosis.” Other medical schools followed suit, offering visual arts observational classes to their students; the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas, in partnership with the Blanton Museum of Art, offers a three-unit course that addresses empathy in doctor-patient communication, self-compassion, and observational skills.

Inspired by these medical school courses that emphasize the need to foster students’ visual acumen, Dr. Susan Rather, Professor of Art and Art History and Faculty Fellow in the Humanities Institute seminar on Health, Well-Being, Healing, has designed and teaches a course called “Art, Art History, and Medicine.” She presented her work on this course to the Spring 2017 Faculty Fellows Seminar on March 30th.  Dr. Rather first offered the “Art, Art History, and Medicine” course in Fall 2016. The course brings together aspiring medical students from the College of Natural Sciences and other undergraduates to learn the possibilities of art historical inquiry and to become familiar with the kinds of questions that visual analysis prompts students to ask. The interpretive strategies taught in medical school courses such as “Training the Eye” rely heavily on tools from visual thinking strategies or similar methodologies that prize context-free observation. Dr. Rather’s course intervenes in this trend by instead training students in specifically art historical methods that encourage them to build evidence-based, contextually-grounded arguments for their interpretations. In contrast to visual thinking strategies, these art historical methods foster interpretive skills, the students’ ability to identify context, and their ability to understand the development of science and medicine in relationship to historical periods, such as the Enlightenment, and the history of anatomical research and illustration.

During the Seminar, Dr. Rather summarized the history of medical art education, reviewed the syllabi of other courses, explained her pedagogical decisions in creating the syllabus for “Art, Art History, and Medicine,” and discussed what went well and what could be improved in the next iteration of the course. Four former students of Dr. Rather’s course, two from Art History and two from the College of Natural Sciences, visited the Seminar to discuss their experiences of the course. The students discussed their final projects, the benefits of interdisciplinary teamwork, and how they have applied the material from the course in other contexts. For example, one group of students designed a two-hour workshop, inspired by art therapy techniques, for medical students that would take place in

Mark Rothko, Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange), 1995
Mark Rothko, Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange), 1995

the Rothko Chapel in Houston. In this workshop, medical students would mediate on the significance of shape, line, color, and expression in Mark Rothko’s paintings and illustrate on paper the emotions they felt during the experience. Workshop participants would also contrast Rothko’s style with Vasily Kandinsky’s. To design the workshop, Dr. Rather’s students researched art therapy, read pieces about Rothko’s and Kandinsky’s style, and used one teammate’s graphic design skills to create a brochure.

Wassily Kandinsky, Composition VIII, 1923
Wassily Kandinsky, Composition VIII, 1923

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