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The difference between looking and seeing

Volume 9 Number 7 July 8 - August 11 2013

Dr Natasha Michael (left) With the Potter’s Heather Gaunt. Photo: Peter Casamento.
Dr Natasha Michael (left) With the Potter’s Heather Gaunt. Photo: Peter Casamento.

It’s all in the interpretation as the Ian Potter Museum of Art takes an innovative approach to exploring how visual observation can enrich teaching and learning across all disciplines. By Kate O’Hara.

At first glance a crisp white doctor’s coat may look slightly out of place in the quiet calm of an art gallery, but an innovative partnership program at the University of Melbourne is drawing a new picture of teaching and learning, particularly in the medical arena.

Led by Dr Heather Gaunt, Curator of Academic Programs (Research) at the Ian Potter Museum of Art, a team of academics and professionals is exploring ways to incorporate visual observation, reflection and interpretation into the learning process.

It all started just over a year ago, when Dr Natasha Michael, a Palliative Care Consultant with the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre put in a call to the Ian Potter Museum of Art. She was interested in exploring opportunities for her students to develop their visual observation skills in an art context.

Dr Michael’s own medical training was strongly influenced by the humanities – through literature, visual arts, music and theatre – areas she considers helpful for reflective practice and empathy development in doctors.

“When a patient sees an empathetic doctor they recognise it very quickly,” she says.

“As I progressed through my own training I realised that doctors were spending less and less time observing patients – treatment plans were sometimes developed based solely on scans or blood test results. 

“While it’s important that we don’t make assumptions, you can deduce a lot by clinical observation and detailed examination of a patient, watching the body language of family members in a family meeting, or interactions between couples.

“It can help provide context and guide how you might steer a conversation, and whether this is a family ready for some of the more difficult conversations.”

Since that first discussion in mid-2012, Dr Michael and Dr Gaunt have worked on a program for a number of pilot student groups within the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences. Associate Professor Mina Borromeo, Convenor of Special Needs Dentistry at the Melbourne Dental School, heard about the initiative, immediately saw its value and joined the program, bringing in a full cohort of second year scholars in the second half of last year.

Collectively, these early efforts were recognised late last year when Dr Gaunt received the Bronwyn Jane Adams Award, which provides recognition and assistance for staff to undertake professional development in their field of expertise.

As part of the award, Dr Gaunt recently visited leading institutions in the USA to meet with practice leaders.

“It was wonderful to see first-hand the types of engagements that university art museums can have in the tertiary context,” she says.

“This field of study is really growing in America, particularly with the re-opening of the Yale University Art Gallery in December. These conversations are happening at the top level there, not only in medical disciplines, but across a range of study areas.”

Widely regarded as the initiator of this body of theory, Yale led the charge in 2000 with the launch of an observational skills workshop created for students at the Yale School of Medicine.

Linda Friedlaender, Curator of Education at the Yale Center for British Art, co-developed the program in response to growing concerns about aspects of medical education methods. Ms Friedlaender says the program continues to grow in esteem and relevance.

“There has always been an interest in careful observation, but lately there has been a confluence of ideas and programs that has brought this issue into the mainstream,” she says.

“Academic institutions are looking for more interdisciplinary initiatives, and with changes in health care, there is increased concern about quality of care. Medical schools are very interested in rounding out a medical student’s education in terms of not only looking more carefully, but with more empathy.”

Dr Gaunt also met with academics and clinicians at Harvard, where a more humanistic approach based on visual thinking strategies and stages of aesthetic development sees participants practise interpretation at all stages of the process.

“Here at the Potter we’re introducing a slightly different model again, where interpretation is left until the participant has performed a detailed objective observation. It’s a model that I think works particularly well for our students,” she says.

“Dr Michael and I ran the first pilot in June last year and it’s just grown from then. I’ve even had conversations with University staff about tailoring visual observation and interpretation training for non-medical areas of the University. 

“It’s a rapidly growing area – lots of people are starting to see where we might connect in new and engaging ways, both inside the University and with the broader community.”

A visual observation session for the public will be held 11 July.