Training the clinical eye and mind: using the arts to develop medical students' observational and pattern recognition skills

Med Educ. 2006 Mar;40(3):263-8. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2929.2006.02389.x.


Introduction: Observation, including identification of key pieces of data, pattern recognition, and interpretation of significance and meaning, is a key element in medical decision making. Clinical observation is taught primarily through preceptor modelling during the all-important clinical years. No single method exists for communicating these skills, and medical educators have periodically experimented with using arts-based training to hone observational acuity. The purpose of this qualitative study was to better understand the similarities and differences between arts-based and clinical teaching approaches to convey observation and pattern recognition skills.

Method: A total of 38 Year 3 students participated in either small group training with clinical photographs and paper cases (group 1), or small group training using art plus dance (group 2), both consisting of 3 2-hour sessions over a 6-month period.

Findings: Students in both conditions found value in the training they received and, by both self- and instructor-report, appeared to hone observation skills and improve pattern recognition. The clinically based condition appeared to have been particularly successful in conveying pattern recognition concepts to students, probably because patterns presented in this condition had specific correspondence with actual clinical situations, whereas patterns in art could not be generalised so easily to patients. In the arts-based conditions, students also developed skills in emotional recognition, cultivation of empathy, identification of story and narrative, and awareness of multiple perspectives.

Conclusion: The interventions studied were naturally complementary and, taken together, can bring greater texture to the process of teaching clinical medicine by helping us see a more complete 'picture' of the patient.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Art*
  • Clinical Competence / standards*
  • Education, Medical, Undergraduate / methods*
  • Humans
  • Observation / methods
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual
  • Students, Medical / psychology*
  • Teaching Materials