Art can help us understand each other better. That’s what Cynthia Dodds, Ph.D., PT, believes. And as an assistant professor in MUSC’s Division of Physical Therapy, she knows that understanding each other is critical to good health care outcomes.
“When we encounter a piece of art, we ask ourselves what we see and what we think it means, and we decide how to act on that information,” she said. “Those are the same kinds of questions we ask ourselves when it comes to patients. Art can be a way of practicing those questions in a setting that has lower stakes than a hospital room.”
Dodds decided to design a class around that concept. Partnering with the Gibbes Art Museum, she launched a pilot course with a small handful of physical therapy students. MUSC’s Humanities Committee and the College of Health Professions’ Division of Physical Therapy provided funding, with the Gibbes’ art educators, Elise Detterbeck and Debby Passo, donating their time.
Rebecca Sailor, education curator at the Gibbes Museum of Art, said she was delighted to partner with MUSC for the unique program. “When Dr. Dodds approached me about working together, I knew we at the Gibbes had talented art educators, a vibrant collection and the desire to expand the program into the medical community,” she said. “As a parent of a child with special needs, who has a physical therapist in our home each week, there was no doubt that I wanted to pursue the opportunity with these students. I can’t wait to see where it will go.”
Dodds was inspired by the Macy Program for Educators at Harvard University, a similar program she participated in. “I was in a very diverse interprofessional group with a lot of international scholars,” she said. “It was kind of an ‘aha!’ moment for me when I realized how differently we could view the same painting. I thought, ‘That’s how we are with patients, too.’”
Dodds’ students participated in a number of small- and large-group activities over the course of three two-hour sessions, such as writing poems inspired by paintings or acting out emotions represented in sculptures.
First-year physical therapy student Sydney Hammond said the activities were helpful in developing observation and interpretation skills — skills that are necessary for any health care professional. “We discussed the paintings in small groups before we knew anything about the artist,” she said. “It’s like when a patient first walks in and you have your initial impression. We all have different initial impressions. Then, the art educators gave us background on the artists, and it changed our initial impressions — kind of like once you get to know your patient.”
Steven Phillips, another first-year PT student, agreed. “It was eye-opening how different people with different backgrounds, levels of experience and viewpoints can have such different interpretations,” he said.
He recalled one painting that left everyone in the group with a positive impression — until Dodds pointed out the way the subject was hiding her face, as if she were trying to conceal something. Did she have an undiagnosed mental issue, he wondered?
“But I could be wrong,” Dodds said. “The good thing about practicing these skills in art galleries rather than at the bedside is that it cuts past the hierarchies that can develop in the health care field and allows everyone to learn in a safe environment.”
Second-year student Meghan Bowman said the program helped her see the importance of developing good communication skills with colleagues and patients and has made her more aware of different viewpoints. “Patients are different day to day,” she said. “You never know what you’re going to see, so we should never just assume something that was true yesterday is true today.”
Art education relies heavily on visual thinking strategies that can be just as useful to health care professionals as to painters or other visual artists, Dodds said. Observation, attention to detail and interpretation are, after all, just as important when it comes to diagnosing an illness as they are in putting paint to canvass. By studying the body language and facial expressions used in art to depict pain or sorrow, one can also recognize those emotions when they manifest in the exam room.
Art teaches empathy and compassion, something that can otherwise be lacking in medical education. “We do a great job teaching the science and the skills, but we don’t always teach students to look beyond their discipline,” Dodds explained. “And we have difficulty teaching them to look at a patient as a person.”
Art can also help individuals overcome their implicit biases, Dodds said — because in art, as in life, what you see isn’t always what you get. “In art, there isn’t a right or wrong answer. So, we can have important discussions without them becoming argumentative or overtly political. It’s a way to appreciate diversity of thought instead of attacking others just because they disagree.”
Dodds’ next step is to find the funding for a full-fledged course. Her students say it would be a great opportunity for some of their peers who may find communication a challenge. She would also like to bring patients and their caregivers into the art museum, or art to the bedside, to facilitate better communication between patients and health care providers.
Hammond, Phillips and Bowman all said they would take the class again or help facilitate the next one.
“You have to look at patients holistically,” Hammond said. “They’re not going to get better if they don’t have support at home, for example. There are other factors besides their injuries. The class reinforced that in a very interactive and interprofessional way.”
Phillips said something similar. “The class helped me to learn to take a step back and consider not just the patient but the patient’s environment and to speak to other clinicians to get the whole picture.” It also helped him get to know second-year students he hadn’t had a chance to interact with before.
Bowman said the class changed her perspective as well. “I think it made me more aware of how I approach a situation,” she said. “I’m not going to go in thinking I have all the answers.”