Image: Med students at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
Matt Rourke  /  AP
A collaboration between Thomas Jefferson Medical College and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts aims to help aspiring doctors "see" better and improve their diagnostic skills by studying fine art.
updated 3/20/2007 4:11:16 PM ET 2007-03-20T20:11:16

Modern medicine provides doctors with an array of sophisticated machines that collect and present data about their patients, but the human eye is an invaluable yet often under-appreciated diagnostic tool.

To address that, a new collaboration of Jefferson Medical College and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts has been created to teach aspiring doctors to closely observe, describe and interpret the subtlest details with the eye of an artist.

The art-and-medicine program kicked off its first workshop last week with a group of 18 white-coated medical students visiting the academy’s museum and a dynamic representation of their chosen profession: Thomas Eakins’ masterwork “The Gross Clinic,” which depicts an operation in progress.

The first- and second-year med students heard how to take a “visual inventory” — paying attention to overall elements of the painting, such as texture and brightness, and specifics, such as body language and facial expressions.

“This collaboration with our art colleagues is a wonderful augmentation to what we’re already doing,” said Dr. Charles Pohl, a professor of pediatrics at Jefferson and co-instructor at Friday’s workshop. “We can learn from the masters to really fine-tune our attention to detail.”

Besides the two-hour Visual Perception workshop, others slated for the 2007-2008 school year are Accuracy and Perception, Hand-Eye Coordination, Art in Healing, and Sculpture and Surgery. The courses are a mix of demonstrations, lectures and hands-on art lessons.

Adding humanities to curricula
A 2001 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that medical students in a similar Yale University program acquired more astute observational skills than their colleagues who didn’t take the courses. Besides assessing a patient’s well-being during an office visit, finely honed visual abilities can also allow doctors to spot subtle changes in a patient’s X-rays over time, for example.

“When they can take a better look at the person in front of them, it helps them make better diagnoses and leads to improved sensitivity to the patient,” said the academy’s painting department chair, Al Gury, workshop co-instructor. “That’s a critical area that many feel is needed in the medical profession.”

Medical schools nationwide are increasingly adding humanities courses to their curricula.

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, 89 of the country’s 125 medical schools have humanities as an educational element included in a required course and 66 have it as an elective. (There’s overlap because some schools have both.) The figures include all humanities, not just visual arts, spokeswoman Nicole Buckley said. Other humanities studied in medical schools include literature, performing arts and music.

The Medical College of Wisconsin has a one-month medical humanities elective for fourth-year medical students, and Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City established a program in conjunction with the Frick Museum.

While fine art may be unexplored territory for some Jefferson medical students, many of their artistic contemporaries at the academy are no strangers to the world of science.

“Our students go to the gross anatomy labs in their upper-level anatomy study,” Gury said. “But this is the first time we’ve hosted the medical students.”

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