The art of VMC’s teaching program…

Medical school is NOT what it used to be. Seriously – art museums? Yes, art

Medical students digging deep into art at Stanford's Cantor Art Museum.

Medical students digging deep into art at Stanford’s Cantor Art Museum.

museums! But first, a little background…

Valley Medical Center has been the teaching hospital for Stanford’s School of Medicine for more than 75 years. That’s a lot of doctors whose careers were launched here. How many? One in four who practice medicine in Silicon Valley trained at VMC.

That training environment is not just great for doctors; it’s great for patients. The collaborative spirit and team approach to diagnoses and medicine has demonstrated better patient outcomes. And of course, the best doctors fall in love with VMC’s mission and stick around for the next 40 years or so. Pretty cool.

So speaking of cool, the way VMC teaches our young doctors-in-training is pretty special too. Yeuen Kim, MD, invited me to spend part of my Friday morning with our young doctors and her fellow faculty at Stanford’s Cantor Art Museum. If you’ve never been, you really should go. Like VMC, it’s world-class.

We were there as part of Dr. Kim’s four-week seminar on medicine and the humanities. Art, music, literature and poetry. “We’re measuring empathy, attitudes and visual diagnostic skills to see if humanities help improve those aspects of professionalism and physical diagnosis,” Dr. Kim explained to me.  This concept is funded by a National Institutes of Health Clinical Translational Sciences Award, administered by the Stanford Office of Community Health – a true scientific study of outcomes (see? Art and Science DO mix!)

While gathered around a particular painting with Cantor Museum Curator Patience Young, I got the feeling that Dr. Kim was right on target. “What are you seeing? What is the artist telling us about this girl? How would you describe her facial expression?” For art students, these questions are basic ones, but Curator Young drew great responses from our medical students – few of whom had any knowledge of art history and were hesitant (at first) to respond…but opened up more and more as the morning went on.

By the time we convened around Rodin’s “The Thinker” and “The Kiss”, the conversation was lively and detailed. Hand position, toes and fingers, the back story of the characters. A true thoughtful exploration of these masterworks.

Dr. Kim and her team believe humanities training can help recapture “the dying art of the physical examination, which our students often struggle with.” She explained to me that technological advances have changed the way patients are examined and diagnosed, and training has changed a lot since she finished medical school in the late ’90’s. “We need to teach our future physician leaders to truly connect with the whole person, to see them for who they are. That’s the best way to help them.”

What struck me was the length of time we all spent on each artistic work. This is the very antithesis of how most people these days think of a doctor’s visit and exam: Quick! Get in, get out, on to the next patient! How many can we see in an hour? More productivity!

My personal experience getting care at VMC for the last decade is not this. Sure, our doctors don’t waste time, but there is a sense of care and connection I get that I understand doesn’t mirror some of my friends’ experiences elsewhere. Training our new doctors to slow down, see the whole patient, learn about WHO they are and not just WHAT ails them can make a big difference.

And as of last week, I see where it comes from.

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