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Medical Students Benefit From Studying Visual Art

New research finds observational skills learned at the museum can be easily applied to clinical work.

A modern physician's job may consist largely of analyzing test results, but a good doctor is also focused on observation. Noticing details such as discolored skin, or body language that denotes discomfort, can provide important clues leading to a proper diagnosis.

So how can aspiring physicians develop a keen eye? New research suggests they should regularly leave the teaching hospital and head for the art museum.

A group of first-year medical students in Philadelphia who did just that, by taking a course focused on visual perception, significantly improved their observational skills. What's more, they reported they were already applying their heightened ability in their clinical work.

"Art training could be helpful across many specialties—especially ones like ophthalmology, dermatology, and radiology, where diagnosis and treatment plans are based primarily on direct observation," said Gil Binenbaum of the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine. He's the senior author of the new study, which is published in the journal Ophthalmology.

The study, led by Jaclyn Gurwin, featured 36 first-year medical students. Half of them voluntarily attended six custom-designed, 90-minute lessons at the Philadelphia Museum of Art over a three-month period.

Instructors used an approach known as "Artful Thinking," which begins by observing and describing colors, shapes, and lines, before graduating to more complex concepts such as "comparing and connecting" and perspective-taking.

At the beginning and end of the program, all of the students took a series of tests. They were asked to describe, in detail, images that depicted artworks, retinas, and the faces of patients suffering from various eye-related diseases.

The observational skills of the 18 students who took the art course increased significantly over the three months. Somewhat surprisingly, those of the 18 who did not take it actually declined during that same period.

This "raises the intriguing possibility that the initial medical school curriculum, with its intense focus on mastering the biological and molecular foundations of medicine, may actually inhibit the development of good observational skills early on," the researchers write.

The results contained one disappointment: The med students' scores on the "reading the mind in the eyes" test—which gauges their ability to discern a person's emotional state by looking at their eyes—did not increase with the art training. That suggests the curriculum needs to be tweaked a bit if it is to elicit more empathetic responses to patients.

That said, "some of the students in the training group expressed in the post-training survey that their ability to empathize did improve, but not necessarily for the reason we expected," the researchers write. "The art training (involved learning) from multiple viewpoints about an unfamiliar subject matter with no clear correct answer," they note, and this apparently approved "their ability to appreciate the opinions of others."

The researchers note that this program could easily be emulated around the nation. The notion of using fine art to enhance visual diagnostic skills has been talked about for years; this is a practical way to implement it.

When looking for a new physician, people often note where the person went to medical school. In the future, we may also want to check out where they studied art.