Art and medicine

The Harvard Medical School is encouraging their students to study art.

One would think medical students should be busy studying anatomy, microbiology and all the other science necessary to be good doctors. With all the digital imaging capabilities available in medicine, the study of art might seem frivolous and a waste of time. Doctors don’t have to be able to draw their patients.

It seems that it is the wonderful advances in diagnostic technology that has created the need for medical students to learn about Van Gogh, Monet, DaVinci and Rembrandt.

Experts in medicine feel that doctors are losing their ability to observe and diagnose diseases directly as more diagnostic tools become available to them. The problem is even greater as the number of patients a practitioner sees each day increases. In their hurried schedule, they are relying on the technology, rather than their own observations to spot things that are unusual or changed in their patients.

Educators at the Harvard Medical School and other prestigious schools like Cornell and Yale believe that teaching students to observe art will make them better doctors. Students are taught using a technique similar to what art teachers are also using in elementary and high schools. The technique is called “Visual Thinking Strategies” or VTS.

The object of Visual Thinking Strategies is for the student to look at a piece of art, to describe what they see, to be able to justify what they see and to discuss it with others. Through the process, students learn to let go of what they think they should see and begin to make more objective observations. Since they have to explain their view to others, they develop more verbal skills and critical thinking ability.

As the children’s thinking skills and powers of observation improve, so does their ability in other areas of study. In elementary schools, teachers are finding that students who experience Visual Thinking Strategies do better on math and language tests. The youngsters learn how to discuss differing viewpoints since the interpretation of art rarely has a single right answer.

Just as elementary children learn to see the world around them in more detail, a recent study by researchers at Harvard Medical School found that future doctors who studied art using the Visual Thinking Strategies approach did better at observing and diagnosing their patients. They knew how to look at the person and see the little things that weren’t there before or shouldn’t be there at all. They observed more carefully how the patient is breathing, the shape of their face or the shape and color of rashes on the skin. Their diagnostic ability improved by more than 38% over students who didn’t get to study art.

The study of art is important for developing the ability to think clearly and creatively. These skills are essential for everyone: doctors, mechanics, computer repair people, farmers, cooks. We all need to be able to imagine, to consider all possible solutions to problems, to observe the world around us. Other studies have proven that learning music motivates students and improves their test scores in other areas such as math and reading. The arts are more than pleasant diversions in a school curriculum. They are an important part of a successful and well-rounded education. The skills learned in art class may be responsible for the next great technology or even for a life-saving diagnosis.

Then there is the fact that art and music just make life more enjoyable.

Copyright © 2013 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains