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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.

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