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The art of medicine: visual learning fine tunes observation skills

Sarah Archino. Photo courtesy Prisma Health.

It’s often said that medicine is as much art as it is science.

Now Furman University’s art department is embarking on a visual literacy project that aims to produce better healthcare providers.

“It is based on the idea of using art to teach students in the medical field – medical school, nursing, clinical training – more about the process of observation and communication,” says art history professor Sarah Archino.

“It’s a chance to rehearse and practice the skill of looking at a multi-layered scene that might not have one single conclusion,” she adds, “like a complicated real-life scenario when dealing with a patient who has multiple conditions.”

A woman in scrubs and a mask draws with colored pencils.
Rachel Downs, M.D., a resident at Prisma Health, participates in a visual literacy workshop.

Funded by a grant from Prisma Health, the project is a collaboration between Archino and Dr. Joy Shen-Wagner, a family medicine physician at Prisma Health who has a dual appointment as an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine Greenville (USCSMG). She helps train resident physicians through Prisma Health’s Family Medicine Program.

“In the world of increasing technology, we have to guard against becoming potentially distanced from our patients,” says Shen-Wagner. “This exercise will hopefully help physicians in training focus their attention on the patient in front of them either in person or via the telehealth realm.”

The project is important because a health care provider may look at a patient and make certain assumptions that can influence the diagnosis, Archino says.

“There are things you might be interpreting based on your own experiences and prior knowledge and you may not be aware that you’re making an interpretive leap,” she says.

For example, she says, someone may look at Rodin’s “The Thinker” and conclude he has a curved spine. Or they may decide he is anxious or depressed based on the tension evidenced in the body position.

“When you look at this work, what do you notice?” she says. “(If you) say he looks anxious, before just accepting that as a fact … you need to be able to say what makes (you) say that.”

Studies show that visual literacy participants are more likely to entertain additional possibilities for a diagnosis before drawing a conclusion, she says. It also helps providers become more aware that looking is a complicated, subjective and messy process.

“That leads to the kinds of benefits that can make a real difference in patient care,” she says.

In addition to viewing artwork, the 18 medical residents in the project will attend a workshop and a simulated patient encounter via telemedicine – half before the patient encounter and half afterward, and then be asked to make diagnoses and compare the differences, Archino says.

“Here it’s a learning experience,” she says, “but it’s parallel to what they would do in the real world.”

Shen-Wagner says medical students will be open to the idea, especially if it’s done early in their training “before they become set in their practice patterns.”

The $6,122 grant will fund two summer research fellows – Furman student Chloe Coffindaffer ’23 and USCSMG student Rebecca Bernstein – as well as development of the workshop and tools to measure success, says Archino.

Coffindaffer says that so far, she’s been learning about telemedicine to gain insight that will help with the workshop.

Though she’s an art history major, she wanted to be involved in the research because she’s also on the pre-med track with an eye on becoming a plastic surgeon or dentist, and the project links the two fields. And as part of her training she’s been shadowing a plastic surgeon to get an inside view of the specialty.

“The plastic surgeon I’m shadowing is into art and claims it has helped her in her field,” says Coffindaffer. “And I personally believe it will help in reading scans, any type of patient assessment, to see colors better, lines better, shapes better. We’re also trying to make a survey at the end (of the project) to see if the students come through this program with a more open mind.”

Archino was a 2019 fellow of Furman’s Institute for the Advancement of Community Health, which awarded her an earlier grant to do the foundational research for this study.

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