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How art sharpens students’ clinical skills

The sharp observational skills that every artist must cultivate are also helpful to physicians. The key to observation, whether in art or in medicine, is “removing interpretations and assumptions about what is in front of you,” says medical student Siyu Xiao.

Photo by Robert A. Lisak
Siyu Xiao and Kathleen Yan, painters since childhood, help other medical students find ways to explore humanities.

Since they were children, medical students Siyu Xiao and Kathleen Yan have been drawn to the arts. Xiao, who completed a minor in Studio Art at the University of Pittsburgh, draws and paints. Yan has been painting and drawing since childhood and, as a Brown undergraduate, took painting courses through the nearby Rhode Island School of Design. “Those were some really great experiences for me, to spend eight hours a day in the studio,” she says.

As a medical student, Yan finds that the skills she learned in art class can be applied to the practice of medicine. “Some of my favorite lessons from painting and drawing were taking note of contrast, dark, and light,” Yan says. “When you look for jugular venous distension, for example, you need to look for shadows.”

The sharp observational skills that every artist must cultivate are also helpful to physicians, Xiao says. The key to observation, whether in art or in medicine, is “removing interpretations and assumptions about what is in front of you,” she says.

“The visual arts offer so much to those of us in this profession,” says Anna Reisman, M.D., associate professor of medicine and director of the Program for Humanities in Medicine. When Reisman put out a call for student assistants, both Xiao and Yan answered. The program aims to connect students in the health professions, including medicine, nursing, and the Physician Associate Program, with artistic pursuits. “Art can be a way to grapple with understanding the perspective and experience of others,” says Reisman. “It’s also the experience of creating art, regardless of ability, as a means of capturing one’s experience by paying attention to small details.”

Xiao and Yan help Reisman coordinate activities that encourage students to explore the humanities. Xiao worked with Reisman on a five-part series, Learning to See, in which visual artists held workshops and gave lectures for health professions students. The series “came to be thanks in large part to Siyu’s vision,” says Reisman. Xiao also coordinates curator-led tours of art collections in the Medical Historical Library.

Xiao and Yan reached across campus to faculty and graduate students at the School of Art and coordinated workshops in which art students instructed health professions students on drawing. Nearly 30 students sketched live figure models, and their work was guided and then critiqued by the art students. The workshops were open to all students, whether or not they had ever picked up a pencil to draw before.

Learning to observe as an artist can also, according to Xiao and Yan, help caregivers deliver unbiased care by encouraging them to see patients as individuals. “We know that there is a lot of research being done about implicit bias, especially in terms of health disparities,” says Xiao. “If we are able to approach each patient as if we are approaching a blank canvas, it can begin to help us understand what our biases are and try not to let that affect our practice.”

“Even if patients have a condition that is common in their demographic, every patient is unique,” says Yan. “They may have the textbook disease, but they may not have the textbook presentation, and it may affect them differently on so many levels. … With that mindset, you keep yourself open to all the possibilities.”

Upon graduating, Xiao and Yan hope to pass the baton—or the brush—to new students eager to incorporate the arts into medical education. In the meantime, Reisman hopes their passion for art will continue to catch on, and that more health profession students will turn to art to help them observe their patients, as well as simply enjoy art for its own sake. “Their motivation and enthusiasm for bringing arts and humanities opportunities to their fellow students,” says Reisman, “is infectious.”