University of Melbourne Magazine
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  • Art opens eyes for medical students

  • Dr Heather Gaunt hosts medical and dental students at the Ian Potter Museum of Art

    Dr Heather Gaunt hosts medical and dental students at the Ian Potter Museum of Art

    A program using art to unlock empathy in medical and dental students is delivering world-class results.

    Dental students became international pioneers when they visited the Ian Potter Museum of Art at the University of Melbourne to examine some of the works on display. “They were puzzled by a painting of a woman’s naked back, with her hair pulled forward covering her face,’’ says Associate Professor in Special Needs Dentistry Mina Borromeo.

    “But the longer they looked at it the more they saw – she could be sad or abused and depressed, they concluded. By the end they were loving the experience, despite their obvious doubts in the beginning.”

    Last year’s gallery excursions by the special needs dental students were part of a program using art as a tool to build empathy in medical and dental students. They were so successful that Borromeo (BDSc 1991) has now made them compulsory in her second-year course to enhance empathy during the students’ studies.

    “We are the first dentistry students in the world to take part in such a humanities program,” she says. “It is a landmark for the study of special needs and replaces some lecture-based teaching.”

    The program’s aim is to enable the students to become more engaged with patients and she says it works brilliantly.

    “It is well-recognised that medical and dental students can lose their ability to empathise by the end of their course, as they cope with its many academic and professional demands. This program is about providing them with the ability to deal with problems that arise in treating patients with challenging needs.”

    Borromeo was inspired by a visit to Quebec City earlier this year with the organiser of the Potter program, Dr Heather Gaunt (BMus 1990, BA(Hons) 1991, PGDipArts 1992), where they took part in a medical humanities conference far more advanced than anything in Melbourne.

    “What we are doing is embryonic compared to what is happening in the US and Canada – we are not in the same universe. But it was reassuring to see we are heading in the right direction,” she adds.

    Conference speakers included a professor of English literature and poetry, a poet in residence and an actor. Medical students and doctors have mounted their own art exhibition in Quebec for the past 11 years, asking students to express what medicine means to them. Borromeo wants to start a similar show, although she concedes it might take time to find enough contributors. “It took two years to get going in Canada,” she says, adding she would like to include practising dentists in the Potter program to “get them out of their comfort zones”.

    The program, which has been operating for two years, is the only one of its kind in Australia. Gaunt, who is the Potter’s Curator of Academic Programs (Research), says it marks a striking change by emphasising the gallery’s role as a university museum.

    “What we are doing is much needed because medical training has become more scientific as it has moved away from its traditional involvement with the humanities,” she says.

    “Studying art increases visual observation skills that can then be applied to clinical scenarios. It demands close observation so students do not leap to conclusions.”

    About 4,000 students took part in the program last year from such disciplines as commerce, computing, and management and marketing, as well as about 100 from medicine and dentistry.

    “I want to continue connecting students with the Potter because it means there are swarms of people moving through the gallery,” Gaunt says. “It is a fantastically rich research environment.”

    She acknowledges a secondary benefit of the program is that it increases the number of people interested in the humanities. “I want to get students from as many disciplines as possible through the door and expose them to the arts.”

    Gaunt selects different paintings to meet the needs of the various disciplines but she says the program’s application to medicine is backed by more than 15 years’ research in the US, where such programs began in Yale and Harvard and have now spread to more than 30 other academies.

    Emeritus Professor of Dermatology, Dr Irwin M Braverman, who helped develop the use of art in medical courses at Yale, has written that observational skills using vision, hearing, touch, smell and taste were well developed in most doctors for much of the 20th century. But they declined as scientific scans and tests developed from the late 1970s.

    “Clinical medical decision-making became unduly influenced by the tyranny of the tests, even though for many medical conditions…the use of the eye and ear was sufficient to make the correct diagnosis or arrive at a limited group of diagnoses more rapidly and at much less cost,” he writes.

    “Studying art increases visual observation skills that can then be applied to clinical scenarios. It demands close observation so students do not leap to conclusions.”


    Gaunt’s US visit earlier this year on a Bronwyn Jane Adams Memorial Award travel grant enabled her to meet academics from Yale and Harvard where the programs originated. “I took part in the Yale course and was able to see first hand how art institutions have become thoroughly involved in teaching medical courses,” she says.

    “The Yale University Art Gallery reopened after renovations last December and has become much more focused on tertiary teaching and research connections. It is a striking change.”

    The art program is obligatory in the first year of medical studies at Yale, while it is an elective at Harvard. “I hope it can become an elective at Melbourne,” she says.

    Evaluations of the Potter program have shown its value for students. “At the beginning there is a certain amount of cynicism because they are not certain about why they are in the gallery,” she says. “But by the end of the program about 80 per cent are really excited and the rest acknowledge its impact.”

    A senior palliative care consultant at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, Dr Natasha Michael, introduced her students to the program because she was concerned that the ‘soft skills’ of bedside techniques were diminishing in the high-pressure hospital environment. “It is easier just to order a scan or blood test,’’ she says.

    “But many students have a strong history in the humanities and just need to learn ways of applying the skills this brings. Using art, literature and poetry in teaching is useful in getting them to think outside the box.”

    She says visiting the Potter is reinvigorating for the students because it is such a different, calming space compared to the hospital. “Studying an art work can lead to improved clinical observation skills because both rely on noticing small details. We try to teach empathy by using our eyes, ears and hands.”

    She says the students find that spending time in front of a painting to determine what it is about is the same as being at the bedside of a patient, listening and observing.

    “That is important in building the patient’s trust,” Michael says. “The Potter program is so useful because it restores medicine’s long-standing interest in the humanities. It is brilliant.”