Program uses art to help health sciences students see through patients' and colleagues' eyes

July 22, 2020
Health sciences students assuming poses of subjects depicted in works of art at the Gibbes Museum.
Health sciences students assume poses of subjects depicted in artwork at the Gibbes Museum.

An interprofessional group of professors at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) and educators at the Gibbes Museum of Art are collaborating to create a safe space through art for conversations about the complex issues facing health care providers. The effort is led by Cynthia Dodds, Ph.D., associate professor in the MUSC College of Health Professions and principal investigator for the study, and Becca Hiester, director of Education and Programs at the Gibbes Museum of Art.

Their goal is to improve communication and observation skills, and ultimately compassion, in students from a variety of health care fields. Their study, funded by a team science pilot grant from the South Carolina Clinical & Translational Research (SCTR) Institute, showed that discussing artwork improves nonverbal communication and learning from the team.  

“This is a project examining the effect of visual-thinking strategies, or VTS, in medical science education,” said Dodds. “These strategies are typically used in museum settings to help train students in the health sciences to improve their observational and communication skills.” 

“As humans, students learn to see through another’s eyes as they listen to each other’s perspectives and try to understand the point of view of the person depicted in a painting, And as health sciences students, they learn how a physical therapist sees things differently than a surgeon.”

-- Dr. Cynthia Dodds

Hiester, too, is a firm believer that the arts provide an opportunity to practice listening to and understanding others. “Our mission is to use artwork to share different experiences and create dialogue,” she said.

The study stemmed from an elective course led by Dodds, offered through the MUSC Office of Interprofessional Initiatives. The course provides an opportunity for students in different health fields to interact with each other. They also interact with MUSC faculty and museum educators for the purpose of using art to discuss challenging topics, such as mental illness and racism, in an effort to encourage diversity and perspective-taking, understanding a situation or concept from an alternative point of view.

The course fosters interprofessionalism, as students join from all six MUSC colleges. It is taught by an interprofessional team of faculty members drawn from a number of colleges and the Center for Academic Excellence. 

Health science students working in pairs to describe what they see in a work of art. 
Students practice communication skills by working in pairs to describe works of art.

During the VTS discussion, students are asked to describe what they see in a work of art, how they interpret it and what else they can observe. Students participate in large and small group activities to discuss what each of them perceives and feels in response to a piece of art. 

Using art as a platform enables students to express their observations freely and to understand those of others. Since there is no one known truth about the state of the subject in the work of art, there is no pressure to predict one right answer. This fosters dialogue and improves observation skills. 

“We and the museum educators don't decide where the conversation is going to go. We just get on the ride with the students, have the conversation and see where we land,” said Dodds. 

The works of art used for the study are selected based on topics important for health care professionals to understand. The art is painted by artists from diverse backgrounds and depicts characters from all walks of life.  

Among the conversations that these art works can initiate are those about race and historical movements, age, gender, mental illness and resiliency. For instance, interacting with the painting “Corene” by Jonathan Green can lead students to a greater awareness of the Gullah Geechee community and its traditions. 

“When they hit that clinical world, we're hoping that they really have a little more capacity to provide patient-centered care through empathy.”

-- Dr. Cynthia Dodds.

By discussing the works with their interprofessional teams, students learn to see not only through the eyes of the diverse persons depicted in the paintings but also through the eyes of health sciences students in other specialties.

“As humans, students learn to see through another’s eyes as they listen to each other’s perspectives and try to understand the point of view of the person depicted in a painting,” explained Dodds. “And as health sciences students, they learn how a physical therapist sees things differently than a surgeon.” 

MUSC faculty members then tie the conversations to their daily experiences with patients.

At the beginning and the end of the course, the students are videotaped during the VTS discussion to monitor their growth in terms of communication and observation skills. The videos are analyzed and scored for body language by the students themselves and by museum educators from different backgrounds and specialties. The humanistic nature and richness of oral and written language are also examined. 

The educators scoring the videos have no experience in reading body language. 

“Think of the students and educators scoring the videos as patients,” said Dodds. “Patients don't have expertise in body language, either. Yet everybody seems to know when you're actively listening and open to hearing information, versus when you're not.” 

In one activity, students from two groups, each having discussed a different piece of art, are asked to assume the persona of a figure depicted in their artwork and to engage in dialogue. Students and museum educators then score body language using a nonverbal checklist. 

“During the study, we saw significant improvements in students’ nonverbal behaviors from the first session to the last session,” said Dodds.

Another scoring system used was the “Readiness for Interprofessional Learning Score,” or RIPLS, a measure that captures attitudes and perceptions related to interprofessional education. In one subcategory, which involved learning from other team members, students significantly improved.

“I think what the class did was give students more perspective-taking as to what each of the health professions brought to the table and how each viewed the other,” said Dodds.

Hiester provides a concrete example of such interdisciplinary perspective-taking. Students are asked to study a painting of an elderly women sitting alone.

“Depending on their medical backgrounds, students might focus on her posture or her facial features or her relationship with her environment,” she said

During the course of the class, students become more comfortable with sharing their opinions with the museum educators and with each other, even though most of them have just met. 

“We want them all to learn collectively. That allows them to become more open as the course goes on, so the conversations tend to get a little bit richer,” said Hiester.

Together, the RIPLS data and student feedback suggest that the course succeeds in its goal to help students see through other people’s eyes. 

Although the study has ended, the course is still available through the Office of Interprofessional Initiatives at MUSC. The course and the study aimed to help students to achieve more effective communication and observation skills.

“And as you develop those skills, you move into higher levels of valuing and developing your moral character, that compass that guides you through life,” said Dodds. “And that's where compassion and empathy live.” 

These are skills, she said, that these health sciences students will need when they get to the clinic.

“When they hit that clinical world, we're hoping that they really have a little more capacity to provide patient-centered care through empathy,” she said.