UVA Arts, University of Virginia

Vol 01 Fall 14 Library
Photo: Stacey Evans

Clinician's Eye

The U.Va. Medical school is partnering with The Fralin Museum of Art

The U.Va. Medical school is partnering with The Fralin Museum of Art to prove that, especially for a budding physician, a picture may be worth far more than a thousand words.

At the core of the Clinician’s Eye program is an effort to use art exposure as a way to help medical students improve their observational and diagnostic skills. Based on similar successful programs at the leading medical schools of Yale, Harvard and the University of Texas at San Antonio, the program was launched at U.Va. by The Fralin Academic Curator M. Jordan Love and Marcia Day Childress, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Medical Education (Medical Humanities), and Director, Programs in Humanities. The pair had an important special assist from pre-med student Louisa Howard.

The genesis of the program is further proof that in academia, as it is in the rest of the world, timing can be everything. “I had heard about the programs at Yale and Harvard,” Love said, “but it didn’t really occur to me to start one here, because I was just getting my feet wet and learning the Museum and the system.”

The wheels were set in motion, Love said, when Childress approached her about talking to her medical school class about the intersection between medicine and art. In a nice bit of serendipity, Love was contacted almost at the same time by Howard, an avowed arts aficionado who was a docent at The Fralin and had interned at a San Antonio museum when a similar program was launched there. The final push came when Love and Childress attended a Nursing School-sponsored talk by Amy Herman, who had developed a similar program between the Frick Collection and Weil Cornell Medical School, and who has won national attention and expanded the audience scope to include law enforcement and Homeland Security.

“I realized in listening to her talk that she was giving almost the identical presentation that we use to train our docents,” Love said. “It was the docent training session that nearly every museum uses, and was developed for non-art history audiences.” After leaving the talk, she said, Love began to think about how much more effective a program like this might be for smaller audiences, and worked to create a less passive, more interactive experience. She created a two-hour seminar and presented it to Childress’ class in 2012. Thanks in part to a grant Howard received, the program expanded early the next year to include extracurricular visits to the Museum.

(Photo: Stacey Evans)

Those sessions, Childress said, bore almost immediate fruit. “We were particularly interested in whether this helped the participants handle uncertainty and ambiguity better. Those are really big pieces of work in medicine or nursing. Often, people who choose to come into medicine would really like hard answers. They would like to just name something and move on. Here you had an opportunity to work as a team. Not everyone comes from the same background or even the same level of training in the same profession. It’s a way to realize that different people see different things in the same object, and how to accommodate that.”

“When you start looking at people or artwork like there is one answer…well, most of the time there isn’t one right answer,” Love said. “I want them to come to the understanding that there are probably going to be multiple and many of them are going to be right. In art history, we always have to be flexible, because there is always going to be a new interpretation, and the same is true in medicine. You always have to be open to new interpretations because new symptoms can show up anytime, or a person can have multiple things going on that may or may not be related.”

You always have to be open to new interpretations.
Jordan Love

One exercise has proven particularly helpful, according to both Love and Childress. Participants pair off, and one is asked to look at a piece of art and describe it so the partner, who never gets to see the piece, can draw it. “That really loosens people up,” Childress said. “Drawing is actually the easy part. The describing can be just horrible!” “It’s a real challenge for them,” Love said, “and I only give them five minutes, because that is often all the time they will have. It becomes about deciding what your priorities are going to be. What does the person have to know first? What is the big picture? You can’t get bogged down in details.”

This is validation that visual analysis is a core skill.
Jordan Love

Pre-and post-testing done around the Clinician’s Eye program are yielding positive results. But for Love and Childress, the program’s benefits don’t stop there. Love, who is ultimately interested in expanding the program to include other University entities including the Nursing School and Law School, said it offers a shot in the arm for her chosen career. “In a funny way, this is validation that visual analysis is a core skill, which is what we believe in art history. It shows that aside from being interesting, and telling us about history and culture, art history has multiple purposes and can make a real difference in a number of important areas.”

And for Childress, the program provides a gateway to the larger University of Virginia experience that can so often be lost on single-focused medical students. “I am really interested in helping our students discover other parts of U.Va. and keeping them more well-rounded. I love that they realized they can go back to the Museum for Final Fridays. And in the end, they realize that this is a legitimate part of being a doctor, and, hey, it’s even fun!”

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