The Healing Arts

Art and the humanities are helping future health care professionals see the big picture for their patients.

Hope Torrents, the Lowe Art Museum’s school programs outreach coordinator, conducts a Visual Thinking Strategies session with a group of health sciences students from across the University of Miami.

Medicine may be a fact-based science, but its practice relies on the ability to see ambiguity and entertain multiple possibilities—skills that are also key to artistic pursuits.

The son of an art historian, Miller School of Medicine M.D./M.P.H. student Ian Bishop “grew up in museums.” So when he was invited to an art-observation workshop for health sciences students at the University of Miami’s Lowe Art Museum, the idea clicked.

“There are similarities between standing before a piece of art to find meaning and looking at a patient to generate possible diagnoses from signs and symptoms,” explains Bishop.

Miller School of Medicine M.D./M.P.H. student Ian Bishop, M.P.H. '11, sees the connection between analyzing art and assessing patients.

He was so enthused about the event that he recruited other medical students to join an interdisciplinary pilot program being spearheaded by Sherrill H. Hayes, a professor and chair of the Miller School’s Department of Physical Therapy.

“Recognizing both subtle and obvious visual details is a critical aspect of visual diagnosis or ‘seeing,’” says Hayes, whose department consistently ranks among the very best in the nation. “But the formal teaching of observational skills was rarely included in medical or physical therapy education—until now.”

For more than a decade, the Lowe has offered Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), a research-based, student-centered methodology intended to boost communication, empathy, active listening, and detailed observation—all vital abilities for health care providers. Until a few years ago, its participants were mainly Miami-Dade County Public Schools teachers and museum visitors.

In 2008 Hope Torrents, the Lowe’s school programs outreach coordinator, began working with psychology students from the College of Arts and Sciences. The next year Hayes contacted Torrents about initiating VTS sessions for her department.

“Art appears to be translatable into a clinical setting,” says Hayes. After her art-historian daughter alerted her to a similar program at Yale’s medical school, Hayes reached out to the School of Nursing and Health Studies and, with Bishop’s help, to other medical departments.

“Art appears to be translatable into a clinical setting,” says Professor and Chair of the Miller School’s Department of Physical Therapy Sherrill H. Hayes, who helped spearhead the "Fine Art of Healthcare" series at the Lowe.

“The Fine Art of Healthcare,” a three-workshop series held during the fall 2010 semester, drew 80 health sciences students to the Lowe. As docents guided small, integrated groups to various art pieces, they asked three open-ended questions: What is going on here? What do you see that makes you say that? What more can you find? Students took turns facilitating conversations.

“The premise is that looking at and talking about artwork help to hone their listening and observation skills,” notes Torrents.

Nursing anesthesia student Melissa Campbell, who spends most of her time in a hospital setting, says the workshop complemented her clinical training. “We had to stop and listen to what people said,” she recalls. “It gave us a chance to paraphrase. One time I reiterated what I thought I heard, and the other student said, ‘No, that’s not right.’”

Vanessa Miller, a physical therapy doctoral candidate, saw the workshop as “a time to slow down and really listen. We stayed at a piece of art and pulled and pulled and pulled what we could out of each piece. Each person brought new ideas.”

Often required to make life-or-death decisions in a fast-paced environment, high-achieving health professionals, explains Hayes, can become hyperfocused on the “right” answer in a field where there are frequently multiple possibilities and complexities.

VTS, says Bishop, enables students to learn from and build off of one another “in a non-threatening, non-competitive environment.”

Alex J. Mechaber, B.S. ’90, M.D. ’94, senior associate dean for undergraduate medical education, says the program, which may become a semester-long elective, is “unique in the spectrum of medical schools incorporating the arts because it’s interdisciplinary. It emulates a medical team approach.”

Mechaber hopes to see more learning-outcomes data on humanities-inclusive medical curricula but still considers himself an enthusiastic supporter. He points to the Miller School’s ethics/humanities medical student pathway. Launched in 2009, it is one of the five concentration areas, including social medicine, genetics/genomics, immunologic medicine, and molecular medicine, to which first-year students can apply.

Jeffrey P. Brosco, a professor of clinical pediatrics and director of the Doctoring Program, and Kenneth W. Goodman, Ph.D. ’91, a philosopher and professor of medicine, lead the student-requested initiative.

“Good doctoring is about more than mastering science,” says Goodman, who directs the school’s Bioethics Program; has joint appointments in philosophy, epidemiology, and health informatics; and co-directs UM’s Ethics Programs and Arsht Ethics Initiatives.

During the monthly ethics/humanities meetings, Goodman notes, students discuss everything from literature and opera to the relationship between music and mental illness. Their final projects have ranged from a Hindi-language medical handbook and analysis of public health messages to artwork depicting the limits of physiological descriptions of emotion.

For her final study, Ashley Lawler investigated cardiac pathophysiology as exhibited through poetic rhythmical shifts. She says such research “can bridge and enhance our understanding of the interrelation of art and medicine.”

Brosco, who has a medical degree and a Ph.D. in history, thinks focusing on the humanities may also help students handle the emotional toll of doctoring. “Going through the wards, students see people in pain; they see people die,” he says. Programs like this “could be a model to help students through medical school.”

Dina Weinstein is a Coral Gables-based freelance journalist.