The Art & Medicine program exposes physicians at Virginia Mason Medical Center to arts education at Seattle Art Museum, with the goal of building their observational skills and empathy.

Share story

One afternoon earlier this month, a group of Virginia Mason doctors huddled, discussing a man who seemed to be in pain.

Instead of being in a hospital, however, the doctors were at Seattle Art Museum, peering closely at the 1930s painting “Morning” by Pacific Northwest artist Morris Graves.

The painting, showing a man lying uncomfortably on a wood floor, portrayed pain in a way that was familiar to the group.

“I thought, ‘Wow, this is a man I’ve seen before in our emergency room, suffering and sick,’ ” said Dr. Laura Saganic, a Virginia Mason resident physician.

Most Read Entertainment Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

The discussion prompted another in the group to observe that when they see their patients, they often don’t think about the patient’s circumstances before coming to the hospital. “Were they lying on a hardwood floor, were they in a tent?” Saganic said.

Building such observational skills and empathy — so critical to the physician’s art — is one of the goals of a relatively new program that exposes doctors at Virginia Mason Medical Center to arts education at Seattle Art Museum (SAM).

The program, called Art & Medicine, brings first- and second-year medical residents and attending physicians in the internal medicine and radiology departments to SAM to look at, discuss and create art, guided by SAM’s educators.

Virginia Mason and SAM partnered last year for the pilot run of the program, which will be held annually. For the creators of the program, focusing on the arts — associated with the right-brain realm of emotion, empathy and intuition — helps to bring more humanity to medical training and contributes to more effective physician-patient interactions.

This kind of training helps address the fact that modern medical education often focuses much more on the factual side of healing, rather than balancing that knowledge with the kind of intuition and empathy the best medical practitioners can bring.

According to a study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, in 2003, medical interns and residents spent 18 percent of their training in direct contact with patients. By 2012, that percentage had dropped to only 12 percent.

This can contribute to physicians being less proficient at gleaning information from physical exams and patients themselves, causing them to possibly miss crucial clues that are needed for diagnosis and treatment.

Another aim of the program is to help the medical professionals explore how to handle difficult emotions and self-care in a high-burnout profession.

Using art to teach medicine is an approach more medical schools are using; according to The New York Times, dozens of medical schools now have art programs.

The art of seeing

On that early June day, about 30 Virginia Mason medical residents and attending physicians took part in the program at SAM. After an introductory overview, they moved to the galleries to look at art, then followed that up with an exercise to create their own simple artwork.

One artwork on the itinerary was “William Forbes M.D. (Professor Forbes, the Anatomist),” a 1905 painting by Thomas Eakins. As the Virginia Mason participants studied the painting, stepping in close to peer at details and moving back to get a bigger perspective, they moved from observation and naming of the elements of the painting to interpreting it. The discussion ranged from how an understanding of human anatomy is important to both art and medicine, to the evolution of patients’ rights.

The art pieces participants looked at this year, like the Eakins painting, were carefully chosen to stimulate discussion among participants, according to Dr. Amish Dave, a Virginia Mason rheumatologist who spearheads the program for the hospital.

After last year’s pilot program, Dave said, “We got a lot of feedback and learned that the residents wanted to spend more time thinking about emotions,” and this year’s artworks were chosen with that in mind. Residents also got to spend a longer amount of time with each piece this year.

The museum setting offers an opportunity for participants to talk about certain subjects that might never come up in the daily course of their training.

“It’s a lot easier to have these discussions about death and dying and the meaning of life, important concepts, outside of the hospital in an art space,” Dave said.

According to Sarah Bloom, a senior manager of education programs who heads the Art & Medicine program for SAM, those are the kinds of insights the program is designed to invoke.

“In addition to building their close-looking and observation skills, the other goal of this program is for them to have these conversations around the emotions they are experiencing,” Bloom said. “This is a time for them to be able to reflect on that and articulate it, and that helps them build their empathy for their patients and also their empathy for each other and for themselves.”

Different perspectives

Another benefit of the program for participants is that they get a break from the punishing routine of their training and a chance to get to know their colleagues better in a different setting.

“That was a really unique experience … this was one of the first classes I’ve had that was led by an artist,” Saganic said. “I really loved that opportunity, the team-building aspect of it as well as the connection to our emotions, because these are folks I’ve been working with all year long around hospital beds. We got our paintbrushes out instead of our stethoscopes.”

Dr. Meriah Moore, a second-year internal-medicine resident, attended the program for the second time this year and said she appreciated the opportunity it gave her to share personal stories with colleagues as well as to learn lessons that will benefit her professional practice.

“There’s a lot to learn from the exercise of appreciating art and getting to do some art too,” she said. “I think we can take some of those skills back when we interact with patients and help us to connect more.”

The informal setting of the museum can also help break down silos among medical colleagues.

“Medicine is often about hierarchy, where a first-year [resident] might feel intimidated by a second- or third-year resident, and attending physicians might not talk on a personal level to interns or residents,” Dave said. “Suddenly, when you’re side by side, appreciating someone’s art skills, you’re appreciating a different dimension of them.”

Virginia Mason and SAM’s Art & Medicine program was partly inspired by similar programs in Chicago, Boston and at Stanford, where Dave studied. Dave would like to see the program grow to the scale of some of those more established curricula and include more types of health-care professionals.

“It would be wonderful if we could see nurses, research scientists at Virginia Mason, pharmacists and other people because I think there’s so much we could teach each other,” he said. “We look at medicine so differently, and we look at art so differently. We have different observation skills based on the profession we’re in. That would be wonderful for people to be able to learn from each other.”