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Can Art Courses make medical students better doctors?

First year medical students may be expected to take courses in art observation, going by the encouraging results of a small study suggesting that medical students may become better clinicians if they take art courses.

The results of the  experiment were made available in a paper titled ‘A Randomized Controlled Study of Art Observation Training to Improve Medical Student Ophthalmology Skills’’. It was published September, 2017, in the journal of Ophthalmology.

Why did the researchers explore this intervention? The lead author, Dr Jaclyn Gurwin, in a press release said:

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.

How was the study done?

Thirty-six first-year medical students were randomly assigned to two groups. The first group took art observation courses ‘’Artful thinking’’ at Philadelphia Museum of Art and second group received no formal art observation training.

With what result? Those that took art courses had better observational skill-an essential part of making diagnosis and communicating with patients and colleagues. Some of the students also reported improvements in empathy-an invaluable part of doctor-patient relationships.

One of the medical students said

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. Later I found our practice of creating narratives in the art class helped guide me when interacting with standardized patients.

Another participant said:

I believe I’ve become more open-minded as a result of the course primarily because of the discussions we had as a group,” said one study participant. “I’m not sure that improving my observational skills increased my ability to emphasize, but recognizing the validity of others’ opinions certainly did.

According to Dr Gil Binenbaum, one of the authors,

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. Students who took the art training course also anecdotally demonstrated improvements in empathy and emotional recognition, such as noting emotions and sensations (i.e. pain or sadness) in works of art.

What impact could this study have on medical education?

According to the Dr Jaclyn, ‘’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.”

“It is incredibly encouraging to see that principles from a field, such as art, that can seem so vastly different from medicine, can be so successfully applied and utilized to help improve clinical skills and overall professional development for medical students. We look forward to continuing to see how these principals can be used long-term for medical trainees and practicing physicians.”

Medical students that acquire observational skills and empathy very early in their training may potentially perform better in the exams. According to one study in the United States, poor performance resulting from inadequate knowledge or poor clinical reasoning ability was more difficult to ameliorate. Interpersonal skill deficiencies, which often manifested as detachment from the patient, and professionalism problems attributed to lack of insight were very difficult to change.

Although this study involved a small group of medical students, it could potentially change curriculum of medical students worldwide. Clearly, further studies will  be needed to examine the impact of art courses on clinical care and determine if the gains of the art course are sustained.

This study also highlights the importance of regularly reviewing medical education to improve the clinical care of patients.

Interestingly, a medical school in the United States  has started offering the art observation course to first year medical students.


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