The med schools in North America have focused very much on the science and we’ve missed the art.
—Dr. Martha Ainsley, respirologist
A pilot program run by the University of Manitoba's Faculty of Medicine and the Winnipeg Art Gallery just concluded its first year helping doctors-in-training expand their clinical observation skills by studying great works of art.
The evening course, mandatory for second year undergraduates, took small groups of medical students through the WAG's permanent collection of sculptures, paintings and photographs.
A medical student takes notes while looking at one work of art for 10 minutes. (Matt TenBruggencate)
The gallery's education team led the students through a number of exercises, ranging from examining the same objects for 10 minutes to composing a poem from an abstract painting, in an effort to expand their visual literacy. The students then spent the second half of the evening applying their skills to medical case studies.
The course - one of the first of its kind in North America - was proposed by University of Manitoba's Dr. Merrill Pauls to Anna Wiebe, the WAG's head of education.
"He thought that by looking at the visual arts and improving their visual literacy," Wiebe says, "that has a bearing in a clinical setting. That by looking at art, talking about it, by understanding how we make interpretations from the visual information we take in and how our own ideas come to bear on those interpretations, would be beneficial to these burgeoning doctors."
The U of M staff who escorted the students on the evening agree.
"It's a good opportunity to challenge their own assumptions they bring to a painting and translate that knowledge to a clinical setting," says Dr. Martha Ainsley, a respirologist at the Faculty of Medicine.
"The med schools in North America have focused very much on the science and we've missed the art: the soft sciences, the sociology, the human interactions, the stories patients bring with them. Sometimes we get more fixated on the man who's having a heart attack instead of Joe from so and so who's having a heart attack."
WAG educator Rachel Baerg with University of Manitoba students (Matt TenBruggencate)
The students, some dressed in jeans and baseball caps, other is suits, were hesitant at first to answer questions on shading, texture and line flow. As the evening progressed and the WAG guide encouraged them to make deductions from minute observations, however, the students began to construct elaborate stories for the painted figures, laughing at their modern interpretations of classic images.
"It's actually my first time at an art gallery," says student Matias Wengiel. "I found it very interesting. The exercise where we looked at one painting for 10 minutes, at the end I wish I had half an hour to keep going... I think that medicine is all about experiences and this is another way of experiencing life."
"I wasn't quite sure what to expect," says Christine Garand. "I think they were trying to teach us that looking at different things, everybody has different interpretations of people's lives. When a patient will come in later in life, we have to know that our own life influences our view of that person and we have to take into account the whole context."