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The art of observation – and how it benefits clinicians and non-clinicians alike

Anne Kenner, a fellow in Stanford’s Distinguished Career Institute, was an assistant U.S. district attorney in New York and San Francisco for 14 years, and an adjunct law professor of criminal procedure for five, so when she enrolled in Stanford’s Art Observation and Clinical Skills (AOCS) School of Medicine class, she was prepared to make a case for what she saw in the art.

But to her delight, what she quickly learned was to simply observe: to approach a piece of art without preconception or opinion, and to describe only what she “saw,” rather than what she “thought” about the art. “It was so hard at first,” Kenner told me during an impromptu dinner at the Axe and the Palm. “For the medical students too, who are trained to assess and diagnose. This class was amazing because I felt like my brain was being retrained, a process that was simultaneously challenging and restful for the mind.”

The AOCS class, led by Audrey Shafer, MD, an anesthesiologist and director of Stanford’s Medicine & the Muse Program in medical humanities and the arts, and Sam Rodriguez, MD, a pediatric anesthesiologist and painter, takes medical students, and this year, DCI fellows, into Cantor Arts Center and the Anderson Collection at Stanford to observe art and photography and then alongside a faculty member from the School of Medicine for a clinical correlate to the art that was observed. Correlates included a session on trauma with ER doctor Nikita Joshi, MD, which was combined with an art session led by art history graduate student Sarah Naftalis, on the work of Frank Lobdell, a Stanford emeritus faculty and World War II veteran who used painting as a way to deal with the horrific, traumatic memories of finding Jewish prisoners who had been burned alive by Nazi soldiers in a church.

In its second year, AOCS, which in held in conjunction with doctoral art history students coordinated by Yinshi Lerman-Tan, and in collaboration with museum staff led by Issa Lampe, associate director of Cantor Arts Center, has grown in popularity and reach, and Shafer was pleased with the transgenerational nature of this year’s course. “It was particularly rewarding to see the interplay between the medical students and the DCI fellows, and how they were not only learning the observations skills being taught, but learning from each other, and appreciating at times very different perspectives.”

Michael Levinthal, a DCI fellow and former entrepreneur, told me how welcoming and inclusive the medical students were. “I wasn’t sure how they would treat the non-medical old guy in the corner,” he laughed, “But they could not have been more welcoming.” Levinthal took the class because he “loves the idea of science and art talking to each other, and I was eager to look at things through a different lens.” He found the course to be even more than he expected, with the medical correlate being particularly interesting to him. “I was so impressed with the medical faculty, and how they related the art to medicine, and quite frankly, how they interacted with the students. They were just top caliber, so impressive.”

Second-year medical student Nicholus Warstadt enjoyed the perspectives Levinthal and Kenner brought to the class. “As we get more and more immersed in medicine throughout our studies, it is refreshing to take a step back and question things like ‘Why do we call this sclerosis instead of scarring?’ The class itself was a safe space for comments, and when someone would spit out an idea, we'd all sort of snowball of off it to formulate an interpretation of what we were looking at.  There was a lot of team work in trying to understand how or why a piece of art was made. I know I went from not knowing how to talk about art at the beginning of the course to having some confidence in my interpretation skills, and everyone contributed to that learning process.”

Watching the medical students’ approach to observation over the weeks, Levinthal noticed a change, and a certain maturity in the medical students. “I really believe this course will help the medical students be more insightful clinicians,” he says. “And you can’t really ask for a better result.”

Jacqueline Genovese is assistant director of Stanford's Medicine & the Muse Program in medical humanities and the arts.

Previously: Engaging with art to improve clinical skills and "Deconstructed Pain:" Medicine meets fine arts
Photo, of medical student Nick Love and DCI fellow Mike Levinthal discussing the work of Frank Lobdell, by Audrey Shafer

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