Moving Us Closer To Osler
A Miller Coulson Academy of Clinical Excellence Initiative

Museums make me a better clinician 


Museum-based health professions education is an emerging field. Studying visual art can help healthcare professionals become more patient, collaborative, rigorous, and appreciative of their colleagues.  

You know what it’s like when you go to an art museum: you read the signs, give the paintings a quick look, and move on to the next room. At least that’s how I’ve acted in museums until today. I always knew that I was missing something, but I didn’t understand what it was until I took the museum-based course that Dr. Margaret Chisolm at Johns Hopkins arranges for medical students. 


With a few simple questions, she helps me to get closer to the artwork. “What’s going on in this picture?” she asks, pointing to a painting of a few human figures. The class starts looking. At first a bit tentatively, but then more intensely: searching for details, patterns, feelings. Different answers come from the group, some things I would never have noticed on my own: this lady looks sadthere’s a tear on her cheek and her shoulders are sloped. She’s dressed in traditional clothing, perhaps from an Islamic culture. This other figure is dressed in unexpectedly modern clothes, as if the people are from different time periodsI wonder what that could tell us? And here, someone is wearing pearls . . . 


By devoting time to the artwork and discussing it with others, the painting comes alive. There’s no right answers, because there is no such thing. Instead, there’s 30 or 40 answers that start to get at the complexity of the piece. 


So, why should clinicians discuss pieces of art? 

First, if we accept the artwork as a metaphor for the patient, it becomes clear that both time and collaboration are essential to understanding. The longer we observe, and the more eyes that are looking, the more we will see. Conversely, one pair of eyes will inevitably miss something. For example, I was looking at a large, ancient stone relief depicting a godlike figure full of embellishments and symbolism and it was only when one of my classmates pointed out that there was a huge crack in the stone running through the whole relief, that I actually noticed itI’d been focused on looking at the figure and symbols.


Another takeaway stems from the question the teacher asks, “What do you see that makes you say that?” Claiming that the person in the painting looks sad is fine, but what do you see that makes you say that? “There’s a tear on her cheek and her shoulders are sloped.” There you go. Similarly, saying that a patient is depressed is fine, but what do you see that makes you say that? With this question, we refocus on what we’re actually observing. When examining anything, be it paintings or human beings, interpretations should always be based on observations.


Finally, studying fascinating things can bring people together, and this applies to patients as well as art pieces. During the course, I learned just as much about my wonderful classmates as I did about the art itself through questions like, “What does she see when looking at this painting?” Similarly, in medicine we get to know our colleagues when caring for patients together and asking ourselves “What does this patient make him think about?” Medicine and art lead us to each other. 


The museum-based course was the most concise exercise in diagnostics that I’ve ever had. Also, I learned to appreciate visual art in a way that I was unable to do before, and had fun along the way, thanks to the enthusiastic teachers and students. What more can you ask for in a course?












This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not necessarily represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.