Future doctors hone their diagnostic skills at art museums

Last fall, the UW School of Medicine and the Henry Art Gallery teamed up to offer a new course to help medical students develop their diagnostic skills by visiting art museums. The course focused on a method called Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), which was originally developed to train museum curators in looking at and interpreting works of art.

Many elements of the VTS approach — close observation, critical thinking, challenging assumptions and generating alternative hypotheses — are crucial skills for doctors as well. For this reason, a handful of medical schools are starting to incorporate the method into their students’ training. The UW is thought to be the first medical school in the Northwest to offer such a class.

In the class, first- and second-year medical students visited the Henry and other museums, viewed slides and engaged in extended, probing discussions about what they were seeing. Their subjects ranged from aboriginal art to Roman portraits to contemporary photography. Tamara Moats (pictured at top), former curator of education at the Henry and adjunct faculty in art history in the UW Museology Program, taught the class in collaboration with Andrea Kalus, assistant professor in the UW Department of Dermatology.

Studies conducted at Yale and Harvard suggest that Visual Thinking Strategies improve medical students’ diagnostic skills. Kalus has seen those improvements firsthand. “It was great to see the students so enthusiastic about the art,” she says. “We watched them refine their observation skills week-to-week both with original objects and medical images.”