As the group of 20 medical students shuffled into the Frost Art Museum, they were asked to look at one particular piece on the wall, a painting by musician Bob Dylan, and describe what they saw.
"There are neon advertisements," one student suggested. "The taxi makes me think it's New York," offered another. "They're wearing jackets, so it looks like it's in the colder months," said a third.
Wednesday's tour wasn't just a chance to take in some culture. It was an exercise in visual thinking strategies, a method that trains the viewer to be more observant, said the museum's Chief of Education Miriam Machado. That skill will come in handy for these future physicians, who will rely on their own observations to make accurate diagnoses while assessing a patient's rash or an X-ray image.
The museum tour is the latest example of a larger push to incorporate the arts and humanities into medical education at FIU's Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine.
"Looking at a painting, the details, what it says to you, that is analogous to diagnosis," said Dr. Gregory Schneider, associate professor at the college. "You pay attention to the details, you attend to the person in front of you and notice things that others don't notice. Those become clues to interpret what's in front of you – whether it's a piece of art or someone's condition."
The medical school recently received a $5,000 grant from the Association of American Medical Colleges to promote the teaching of arts and humanities in medical schools. According to the AAMC, this integration can promote professionalism, empathy and altruism, enhance observational skills and decrease physician burnout.
The grant will go toward the museum tours, the creation of a collaborative mural and a launch event for the tenth issue of Eloquor, the college's medical arts journal.
In addition to the grant, the college recently awarded its first Humanities in Medicine Scholarship, aimed at exceptional students who show an appreciation for the arts. The recipient, first-year student Ciara Lusnia, said the college's efforts to incorporate arts education influenced her decision to attend FIU. "When I was applying, I wrote about Eloquor and how I wanted to write for it," she said. Lusnia sees the benefit of using a film or an art project to complement a lesson. She said she goes into "a different mindset" when engaging with a work of art than when she's memorizing facts from a textbook.
In Schneider's course for first-year students, Foundations for the Community-Engaged Physician, he uses film clips to illustrate concepts his students are learning. Movies like "Philadelphia" or "The Shawshank Redemption" can help prompt questions about justice and fairness among the class, he said.
Elective courses like the History of Medicine through Art, and Narrative Medicine round out the college's curriculum to include art history and literature.
In the Narrative Medicine course, Associate Professor Dr. Sarah Stumbar recently assigned "The Plague" by French philosopher Albert Camus and had her students draw parallels between the novel and the COVID-19 pandemic. In another exercise, Stumbar asks her students to write 55-word and 6-word stories to practice succinct communication. They also write an essay about a significant patient encounter and share it with their classmates.
"From the first day in clinical skills, students learn to ask a patient why they're here and say, 'Tell me more,'" she said. "We as physicians have access to stories that other people don't have access to. Your responsibility is more than treating and prescribing."
The medical students also find outlets for artistic expression outside the classroom. They can submit artwork to the Mammography Art Initiative, an annual art auction that raises money for the college's Linda Fenner 3D Mobile Mammography Center that offers free mammograms to underserved women. Or they can join the Medical Humanities Club or Music & Medicine Interest Group.
Schneider sees all of these initiatives as a way to celebrate not only the students who perform well on exams, but also students who love to sing or paint or write. "Clinical skills are important, yes. But human skills are important. And art helps you connect with that human side," Schneider said.