New Research Shows Art Studies Improve Medical Students’ Observation Skills

October 13, 2017


Over the past decade, medical school programs increasingly have incorporated art studies into their course offerings – an innovative move that has garnered much anecdotal success. Now, results of a high-profile study commissioned by the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) prove that this creative approach is working wonders for medical students’ observational and diagnosis skills.

For the study, researchers asked 36 first-year medical students to take a six-session art observation course at the Philadelphia Museum of Art or to be part of a control group that received no formal art observation training. Course sessions were taught by professional art educators using the “Artful Thinking” teaching approach, which emphasizes introspection and observation before interpretation. Each of the participating students completed an observation skills test, which measured emotional recognition of retinal and facial disease photographs and description skills, before being divided into the randomized groups and then took the test again at the end of the course.

Testing results revealed that students who took the Artful Thinking course showed significantly higher improvement in their observational skills than did students in the control group.

“The skills I learned studying fine arts in college are invaluable to me now as a physician. I saw the impact art education had on my approach to medicine, and I wanted to recreate that experience for others in the field,” said the study’s lead author, Jaclyn Gurwin, MD, an Ophthalmology resident at the university’s Scheie Eye Institute. “The results of this study are incredibly encouraging, showing that art observation training can improve medical and ophthalmological observational skills. We hope that the improved observational abilities from this training will translate to improved clinical effectiveness, empathy and, ultimately, will make better physicians.”

“Art training could be helpful across many specialties, especially ones like ophthalmology, dermatology, and radiology, where diagnosis and treatments plans are based primarily on direct observation,” added Gil Binenbaum, MD, MSCE, an associate professor of Ophthalmology in the Perelman School of Medicine, a pediatric eye surgeon in the division of Ophthalmology at CHOP, and senior author of the study.

Students also lauded the experience.

“After just one session, I found myself listening to a radiologist discuss the same principles we used to look at art when analyzing a CT scan,” one reported. “Later I found our practice of creating narratives in the art class helped guide me when interacting with standardized patients.”

Full results of the study were published in a recent issue of Ophthalmology.

Yale School of Medicine was a forerunner in the approach. Students there visit the Yale Center for British Art to study “The Death of Chatterton”, a Henry Wallis painting depicting the scene of the August 1770 suicide of Chatterton, an English poet whose work significantly impacted the Romantic Movement. Students with the keenest skills notice the subject’s ashen complexion; his body’s contortion and the uneven placement of weight on his hip – not a particularly comfortable sleeping position; and scratches on his chest. When asked to consider the setting, they take note of the dim lighting, as well as scattered pieces of paper and – the ultimate telltale sign – an empty vial on the floor. Yale’s program became mandatory for first-year students after a 2001 study showed that scores on observation tests increased by nine percent among students who participated in just a one-day gallery session.

Study results have prompted the Perelman School of Medicine to offer the Philadelphia Museum of Art course to all first-year students beginning the fall 2017 semester. And Further studies will aim to address both a more sensitive measure for changes in emotional competency as well as the long-term effects of this training on overall clinical observational skills.

We here at WOLFPACC applaud innovative efforts that legitimately improve medical students’ abilities. Our own unique approach to the study and practice of medicine has helped hundreds of students prepare for the rigors of medical school and ace their USMLE and COMLEX exams on the first try. Find out how we can help you develop a competitive edge by calling 904-209-3140 and speaking with a WOLFPACC enrollment specialist today.