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Using art to sharpen observational skills

Yale Medicine Magazine, 1998 - Summer


Medical education took an artistic turn for a group of Yale students this past spring. Professor Irwin M. Braverman, M.D. '55, and museum curator Linda Friedlaender combined their expertise to produce a tutorial using works of art to sharpen the observational skills of aspiring physicians.

In a collaboration between the medical school and the Yale Center for British Art, 56 medical students spent time looking at selected paintings, described them for the group and made thoughtful judgments about what was being communicated visually. Students were assigned a painting and given time to observe and study it–“like a rash that has been framed,” says Dr. Braverman, a dermatologist.

The goal of the exercise is to produce more careful observers by training students to decode an object's meaning and to extract useful information. Physicians with superior observational skills ask the questions necessary to diagnose illness without relying excessively on tests, says Dr. Braverman, adding, “Doctors have to be taught to pick up on details that are often overlooked.”

He came upon the idea last November while thinking of ways to teach his dermatology residents to notice more in the clinic. He discussed the idea with Mrs. Friedlaender, curator of education at the Yale Center for British Art, who had been thinking about the same kind of observational exercise for residents in the Department of Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation, chaired by her husband, Gary E. Friedlaender, M.D.

The students who participated in the tutorial found it to be a significant step in their training. “Like very detailed paintings, the human body is complex,” says Leo Kim, a first-year student. “Learning to look at, and really see, all the details of a painting helps in diagnosing patients.”