In 2010, the museum, working with the John A. Burns School of Medicine, created the for-credit elective Enhancing Clinical Skills Through Art. The five-session course was developed by docents Steve Miller, retired opthamalogist and vice president of the Hawaii Permanente Medical Group; Dr. Irv Schatz, emeritus Chief of Medicine at the UH medical school and retired internist; and Betsy Robb, the musem’s director of tours and docent programs. Sessions are also led by docents David Andrew, a retired internist; Mary Flynn, a retired pathologist; Patrick Norman, a retired psychiatrist; and Bill Pearl, a pediatric cardiologist.

In the past two years, 22 students have completed the course, and the third session starts Aug. 9. Doctors at Straub Clinic & Hospital were impressed with the program and suggesed that a shorter course with continuing education credit be offered to practicing doctors in the community. So the museum did just that.  Hawaii Pacific Health (HPH) publicized the course, and in January and February, 19 doctors signed up, earning 6.5 Continuing Medical Education credits from HPH.

Just how does art help doctors improve clinical skills? Over lunch in the Education Lecture Hall, the practicing doctors looked at slides of artwork, then took a two-hour tour of the galleries to observe paintings and sculpture.

As an example Miller cites the 17th-century Dutch painting A Musical Conversation. “At first glance it seems like people playing instruments and having a good time,” explains Miller. “But if you look closer, you notice that a dog is looking at you, notice that the singer on the left is either looking at the music or the lady in front of him, notice the background and see a statue of Venus on the shelf, and people coming out of a courtyard on the right—we teach people that there are many things to notice to fully understand a scene and the interpersonal implications. In the clinic, if a spouse comes in with a patient, it’s important that the doctor observes the spouse too—is he or she smiling or frowning, and why?”

From their observations, doctors then inferred facts about the depicted scene, then subtracted their own biases, and discussed with each other. “Normally all of us immediately jump to interpretations, when we need to be observant and careful of our facts,” says Miller. “When asked what they learned in the course, one student responded, ‘This will be really helpful—this is the first time that I’ve realized that other people have an opinion different from mine.’ ”

“Physicians who care for many patients are good at multiple levels of interpretation,” explains Miller, “but even they can have different interpretations of the same scene. The students in this course enjoyed discussing their interpretations and various ways of working with patients. Discussing a patient in person can be inhibiting. But the discussion of art works can be long and open, with honest exchange of observations and impressions. All the practicing physicians wanted to return for another course.”