The Art of Clinical Observation

What do art and medicine have in common? One key thing is the need for well-honed observation skills. This fact led Dartmouth Medical School faculty and education staff at Dartmouth’s Hood Museum of Art to work together to create a program to enhance future doctors’ observation and diagnostic skills through looking at works of art. The two-hour workshop, called The Art of Clinical Observation, is made available to medical students through the first-year On-Doctoring course, which teaches interviewing, clinical diagnosis, and relationship skills.

The program takes place in the museum galleries, with groups of six to eight students participating at a time. Each student is assigned a painting or another work of art and is asked to look carefully at the work and then present to the group about what they observe. After the work of art has been thoroughly described, students discuss an interpretation, or diagnosis, of what it is about. Finally, participants apply their heightened observation skills to diagnosing photographs of medical cases. The museum experience is facilitated by education staff and docents (volunteer gallery instructors), with On-Doctoring facilitators often contributing to the medical discussions that conclude the workshop.

Response to the workshops has been overwhelmingly positive. Students feel strongly that the experience will help them as doctors, and all of them say that they would recommend this training to colleagues. When asked what they have learned in the workshops, students share comments such as “There is so much we can miss at first glance. It just helps to stop for a moment and think about what information something (a detail) might give us,” and “Closer, longer observation and focus leads to much more thorough, expansive interpretation.”

Photo: Kara Detwiller and Christopher Jordan, two Dartmouth Medical School students, examine Shotgun Hospitality, a painting by Frederic Remington in the Hood’s collection. Photo by Joe Mehling.