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A museum is a very safe place for people who are dealing with life and death situations. The stories they create can't be wrong no matter what the painter intended. They also only have to interpret and describe the painting. They can't treat the painting or kill the painting with an error.

Dr. Lynn McKinley-Grant, associate professor and Vice Chair for Diversity and Community Engagement in the Department of Dermatology, Duke University School of Medicine
Using ink on paper, participants create large gestural paintings as a warm-up to the day ahead. Photo by J Caldwell.
Using ink on paper, participants create large gestural paintings as a warm-up to the day ahead. Photo by J Caldwell.

As Duke medical students learn how to examine patients in their classes, they also learn how to examine works of art at the Nasher Museum.

Duke’s School of Medicine and the Nasher Museum created a program that brings medical students into the galleries to build their visual and communication skills. The goal is for students to learn how to better understand their patients and themselves—and how to communicate.

About 25 dermatology residents, faculty, research fellows and medical students visited the Nasher Museum last semester as a part of their dermatology rotation, one of several quarterly retreats that involve training in observation and close looking in the arts. On hand were Ellen C. Raimond, Ph.D., Assistant Curator of Academic Initiatives, who is experienced in visual thinking strategies, and local artist Emma Skurnick, who is experienced in teaching drawing in anatomy classes.

“Health care providers and first responders need to develop observational skills that will allow them to assess people and situations quickly through the use of all five senses,” Dr. McKinley-Grant said. “Using the visual arts is great for training in the art of seeing.”

The Nasher Museum, a short distance from the medical campus, offers classroom space for drawing and presents exhibitions that teach cultural competency, empathy, team building and communication, Dr. McKinley-Grant said. “It’s a perfect setting for residents and medical students in stressful work situations to come and de-stress and use the tools learned to provide better patient care and at the same time prevent burnout.”

“Art also teaches about the human aspect of many cultures different than the observer’s culture and provides training in cultural competency,” Dr. McKinley-Grant said. “With close looking at the humanity of art, one improves the skill of empathy in patient care.”


Dermatology residents and physicians partner up, and take turns, making drawings based on their partner’s description of a work from the collection. Photo by J Caldwell.
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