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Art, Science and Medical Students: Another Look


Art observation training for first-year medical students demonstrated significant improvement in clinical ophthalmology observational skills.


The first time I learned about the association of medical students and art, was four or five years ago at the University of Iowa.

Sean O’Hara, then Director of the University of Iowa Art Museum, now Director at the Honolulu Art Museum, said the equivalent over an informal lunch at a modest Asian restaurant, “There is a correlation between a medical student’s interest in art and how entrepreneurial they are later.”

I thought to myself, that is certainly something I have not heard before.

Now, it seems this kind of thinking is the norm. It is widely accepted that medical students are attending art classes, not to make them more innovative (though it might), but to sharpen their clinical skills through observation of art.

According to a study published by The American Academy of Opthalmology in 2017, 36 arbitrarily chosen medical students were assigned to take six, 1.5-hour art observation courses at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, while the controls did not take art classes.

Tests to assess observational skills were given before and after the classes in each group. The students in the art courses showed a significant improvement in their observational skills compared to the controls.

"The skills I learned studying fine arts in college are invaluable to me now as a physician," said lead author, Jaclyn Gurwin, MD, in a commentary on the study published in ScienceDaily, September 2017. "I saw the impact art education had on my approach to medicine, and I wanted to recreate that experience for others in the field. Because of this study, The Perelman School of Medicine began offering an art course at the Philadelphia Museum of art to first-year medical students during the 2017 fall semester."

Other ways in which art and science are merging include art and science conferences, a Sci Art Center in New York City, exhibits featuring science and a PhD offered in arts and science at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, beginning this year. Jonathan Fineberg, director of the program, suggests that involvement with art may enhance survival skills by stimulating the brain to notice and adapt to new realities in an imaginative way.

Though combing art and science is clearly all the trend, whether taking precious hours of a medical student’s scientific education and replacing it with art instruction is ultimately worth the effort and time has yet to be definitively demonstrated. While the numbers in the Gurwin study were small, she seems to have hoped for the outcome, which theoretically could subtly influence it.

Time will tell, but for now the push toward art combined with science is here to stay. It is the new which means it is novel and what our brains are constantly seeking.

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