Art of Observation

Art & medicine: Finding color in the gray

Educators at KCU-COM are incorporating the healing properties of art into the medical school curriculum.


One of the hardest experiences for medical students is to appreciate how to live in a world of gray—that is, a world in which there isn’t always one right answer, says Darrin D’Agostino, DO, executive dean of Kansas City (Missouri) University of Medicine and Biosciences College of Osteopathic Medicine (KCU-COM).

To help future physicians navigate through a ‘world of gray,’ Dr. D’Agostino and his colleagues at KCU-COM are incorporating art education into the school’s curricula via guided trips to art museums. During the trips, students see how each person’s unique interpretation of a given artwork is related to the importance of considering multiple perspectives in medicine.

Museum visits in the medical school curriculum

Just over a week ago, KCU-COM began a partnership with the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art to weave the art and medicine connection into the first two years of medical education. Medical educators are working directly with docents from the Kemper Museum, which is hosting the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery starting in October. KCU-COM’s ultimate goal is to have all students take an annual guided museum tour during each of their four years of medical school.

Dr. D’Agostino wants students to recognize tiny details in a piece of art in the same way they may notice how blood vessel marks on a patient’s face can indicate a disease process.

The artwork’s details and the reasons for a patient’s blood vessel marks can be many, so educators like Dr. D’Agostino and Dr. Kruse are helping students to consider the whole patient story and presentation and allow their observations to guide their thought process.

“Teaching students to understand the complexities of decision making is going to be very powerful,” says Dr. D’Agostino.

This new partnership has evolved from a trip anatomy fellows took to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in March with Schoen Kruse, PhD, assistant dean at KCU-COM, to focus on the art of observation.

How observation helps future physicians

“A trip to the art museum can encourage observation, interpretation and diagnostic skills development,” says Dr. Kruse. “It can promote individual reflection, foster empathy and increase appreciation for the psychosocial context of a patient experience. These skills can prevent burnout and encourage renewal.”

Dr. Kruse preselected two portraits at the Nelson-Atkins and asked students to observe them for about 10 minutes. Students then talked about what they observed in what Dr. Kruse explains to be a judgement-free, confidential, and safe space for discussion.

He then assigned pairs of students to observe a piece of modern art for 15 to 20 minutes before they served as teachers for the larger group in explaining how they could interpret this piece of art to relate to health care.

In the video above, students explain how discussing their observations allowed them to become aware of new perspectives that can ultimately improve the way they practice.

“These exercises put students in a situation where they have to think about what they’re looking at and take time to let those little details come out,” says Dr. Kruse.

Observation prompts provided by Dr. Kruse encouraged students to consider poignant memories in their lives and how careful observation can reveal their capacity for empathy.

“They may talk about a struggle they were faced with and how they came through it all via maybe just a portrait of a window and a chair,” says Dr. Kruse. “That’s the most exciting and rewarding part—to learn the realness of who our future physicians are going to be.”

One comment

  1. Dr. Bob, DO

    Terrific, require more of your students. As if there isn’t enough to do already, give them another task. There is little free time in medical school and this will further diminish that.

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