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DO Students Study Picasso, Cézanne to Hone Primary Care Skills


February 11, 2019

Research indicates medical students show improvements in observational and communicative skills when taking art-observation workshops.


“Is that…is that a door?”

“Oh, to me it almost looked like a storm drain. But maybe?”

Pete Cloney (DO ‘22) and Anna Sicilia (DO ’22) are leaning towards The Allée of Chestnut Trees at the Jas de Bouffan, by Paul Cézanne, studying it closely, looking at the painting’s colors, the brushstrokes the artist used, and the lush scenery of the tree-lined path within.

“There’s lots of little bumps,” Mr. Cloney points out to his partner. Ms. Sicilia shifts positions to get a better view.

These medical students may appreciate art in their spare time, but today, they’re visiting the Barnes collection in Philadelphia—a trove of over 3,000 works of art featuring masterpieces by Renoir, Matisse, Picasso, and Cézanne—as an optional part of their Primary Care Skills (PCS) class, for a series of workshops designed to hone their perception, observation, communication and collaboration skills.

Existing research has shown that studying artworks can help strengthen these skills; a 2018 study in the journal Ophthalmology found “significant improvements” in observational skills among medical students who took part in six art-observation sessions.

At PCOM, more than 60 percent of graduates go on to practice in primary care, where those skills are a physician’s most powerful tools.

“I think this is helping train our clinical eye,” said Ms. Sicilia. “I’m picking up small details and seeing things he didn’t, and we’re collaborating on our findings.”

“As we move toward a more integrated approach to medicine, we’ll be dealing with different types of health practitioners. I think workshops like this can help us build those collaborative skills,” added Mr. Cloney.

The series of four workshops, offered by the Barnes through the Sheldon Weintraub Fund, were developed and are led by William Perthes, Bernard C. Watson Director of Adult Education at the Barnes. The curriculum is designed to engage medical students and professionals on how close-looking skills can be beneficial in a clinical setting.

“In each session, we study these works of art and discuss what is verifiably observable, and what the cumulative effects are of the choices the artist decided to make,” explained Mr. Perthes. “When we think about how medical students approach what they see in a clinical setting, it’s very similar. There is a linear connection between the way an artist observes and interprets what they’re painting, and the way a medical student or professional observes and interprets what they’re seeing in a patient.”

Mr. Perthes has held similar workshops with other medical schools in the city. Ruth Conboy, DNP, LPC, a counselor in the Office of Student Affairs, reached out to Mr. Perthes to see how PCOM could become involved. This collaboration marks the first time he has met with students across multiple sessions.

“We’re interested to learn what the cumulative effects of these visits will be,” he said.

Students in the PCS class, led by Harry Morris, DO '78, MPH, professor and chair, family medicine, applied to attend the workshops and were selected based on their level of interest. During each session, students closely studied works in the collection, discussed what they saw as a group, and journaled their thoughts and experiences for later reflection.

“In PCS the students learn how to interact with patients and learn to interpret what they’re seeing— and what they’re not,” said Dr. Morris. “That is the hallmark of doctor-patient interaction, and the sessions at the Barnes are a natural fit for our students; our educational philosophy is to encourage them to look beyond the illness or ailment to find the root of the problem.”


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About Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine

Founded in 1899, Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine has trained thousands of highly competent, caring physicians, health practitioners and behavioral scientists who practice a “whole person” approach to care—treating people, not just symptoms. PCOM offers doctoral degrees in clinical psychology, osteopathic medicine, pharmacy, physical therapy and school psychology, and graduate degrees in biomedical sciences, forensic medicine, mental health counseling, organizational development and leadership, physician assistant studies, school psychology, and public health management and administration. Our students learn the importance of health promotion, research, education and service to the community. Through its community-based Healthcare Centers, PCOM provides care to medically underserved populations in inner city and rural locations. For more information, visit pcom.edu.

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