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Yale innovation in art of observation has worldwide reach

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2006 - Autumn


In 1997, worried that physicians’ observational skills might be waning in an era of laboratory tests, electronic monitors and medical imaging, Irwin M. Braverman, M.D., professor of dermatology, in collaboration with Linda K. Friedlaender, M.S., curator of education at the Yale Center for British Art (YCBA), offered an unusual approach to training doctors.

“Physicians were losing this ability that they all had, and all used, 50 years ago,” Braverman said. At about the same time, Friedlaender had a disappointing experience when she saw that a resident examining a friend of hers prior to surgery failed to notice obvious signs that the patient was agitated. Friedlaender told this story to her friend Braverman, and the program, Enhancing Observational Skills, was born.

Each spring, Yale medical students visit the museum for three hours to study and describe paintings, and they then apply their enriched observational vocabulary to images of human skin lesions they are likely to encounter in the clinic.

The program, now required of all first-year students, has proven so successful that two dozen other medical schools have adapted it. The Frick Collection & Frick Art Reference Library in New York is offering a variation on the program for about 200 medical students a year drawn from Weill Medical College of Cornell University, Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, Mount Sinai School of Medicine and New York University School of Medicine.

And educators in professions from business to law enforcement are following suit. Yale School of Management Dean Joel M. Podolny, Ph.D., thought business students also could learn how to size up a situation by looking at art, so as part of their orientation last August newly arrived Yale business students paid a visit to the YCBA. Two years ago members of the New York City Police Department were invited to take part in similar training.

New Haven and Yale police officers have also taken the course. According to Friedlaender, the New Haven police will apply their new descriptive skills to photos of street scenes, not skin lesions. “This exercise may encourage officers to consider how the museum looking experience might impact their professional duties,” Friedlaender says, adding, “I’m sure they could teach me a thing or two.”