The Art of Observation

Observation in Art and Medicine
Observation is an important component of both art and medicine, and it is at this crux where the MFAH is able to contribute to medical and nursing education in the Houston area. Today’s medical environment tends to rely on technology to investigate and diagnose, and as a result, the importance of teaching students how to effectively observe patients is often undervalued. Aiming to balance this disparity, the MFAH offers a range of courses that use works of art to enhance students’ observations skills. Participants learn how to slow down, look closely, gather visual evidence, remain open to possible interpretations, and effectively communicate their observations to others.

For students enrolled in medical and nursing programs, the chance to visit the MFAH is a welcome experience. Read below for one student's reflection on the Art of Observation course and how it has affected her medical education.

Reflections from a Medical Student: Taking a Deep Breath
by Denise Fraga, University of Texas Medical School at Houston

"Before I started medical school I was told, 'it'll be over before you know it.' The beginning of my first year made me think otherwise. It seemed painfully long with too many coffee-filled nights. But now that I am starting my third year, I realize that it’s true. As med students, you plan your first two years of school from one block of exams to the next. At times not thinking about anything else other than grades and how you’re going to make learning 2,000 drugs (and their side effects) not only interesting, but stick in your head long enough to take the required exam.

I regret not reflecting more often throughout the school year. I came to medical school motivated by childhood dreams of becoming a doctor and working on the Texas- Mexico border in a small town, at a Planned Parenthood clinic, or with a non-profit group like The Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. I’m still not certain what it is that I’ll be doing when I 'grow up.' But unless I carve out time to think about what is happening around me, I don’t think med school allows much time for one to reflect or look around before the next flood of activities or exams carries you off.

At the start of the school year, I enrolled in the Art of Observation course. Despite exposing my apparent lack of observation for the world around me, it was one of my favorite activities of the year. During the first meeting we went around the room giving our reasons for joining the class. I think many of us participated so that we could escape the medical center and the LRC for those two precious hours each week. For the first time since starting medical school, I felt comfortable. I wasn’t required to pre-read, or know about art history or the relationship between complementary colors on a color wheel. I simply described what was in front of me. We spent the first two classes describing paintings and creating a story for each piece. What was the girl with the pearl gazing at? Where was she from? What was she feeling and why? We worked our way to more complicated pieces like actual patient photos. It seemed an easy enough task to describe a photo in layman’s terms and then incorporate the appropriate medical terminology that we learned in school. The woman in the photo had red cheeks, perhaps a rash or sunburn. What was the distribution? Was it a malar or a heliotrope rash? What was her possible diagnosis?

It has been almost nine months since I completed the Art of Observation. Somehow in the midst of rote memorization and the stress of recalling information when put on the spot in front of peers and a physician, I realized that I’ve stopped closely observing the people who are directly in front of me. I have been so nervous when walking into a room to do a history and physical exam that when I have walked back out into the hallway, I couldn’t remember if I noticed an IV or a Foley catheter. If there was an IV, was it placed in the hand or the antecubital fosa? Did I even ask my patient if they needed anything before I left? Thinking back to the Art of Observation, I appreciate the few moments when I have actually stopped to take a deep breath, to look around, and to think about where I am."