Art and observation meet medicine

Physician assistant students visit Portland Art Museum to hone clinical, professional skills

Nov. 16, 2018

P.A. students discuss a Karl Hofer painting

On a bright fall day, members of the OHSU Physician Assistant Class of 2020 students gathered for an afternoon of observing and reflection about their roles as clinicians. The gathering place was not a classroom or a clinic, however. It was the Portland Art Museum, and students spent hours looking closely at just four pieces in the museum's vast collection.

Museum representatives guided them through observation and reflection exercises, encouraging the first-year students to examine the works as closely as if they were a patient. Docent Jill Lang asked:

  • What time of day do you think this is and why?
  • What was your first impression and did it change as you had a conversation about it?
  • Do you think the use of color influences the painting?

P.A. students at Portland Art Museum, in front of a Kehinde Wiley painting

The P.A. students are part of a new experience being led by Patrick Bowden, M.M.S., P.A.-C., assistant professor of physician assistant education. This type of "close looking" practice is designed to guide professionals in using art as a way to hone skills in observation, communication, team-building, considering diverse perspectives, and tolerance of ambiguity through exercises and activities in museum galleries.

"Ultimately, I hope students translate these observational skills in art to their interaction with patients, resulting in a more thorough physical examination," said Bowden. "The art museum can be a staging ground for deeply personal subjects, such as loss and grief for example, and I enjoy helping students dive into these topics."

Bowden built a similar experience at Rush University in Chicago, and is now collaborating with Portland Art Museum to allow P.A. students a unique chance to broaden their clinical and professional perspective through art. The nontraditional course is also a way to promote student wellness. Held between big exams, the experience rewards them for their hard work while also helping these future health professionals be comfortable with ambiguity. "We want you to know what you know confidently, but also want you to know what you don't know just as confidently," said Bowden.

P.A. students at Portland Art Museum, sketching from a Giuseppe Bonito painting

Alvin Prasad, a member of the P.A. Class of 2020, said the experience made him think about the way he sees himself – and how this might influence a forthcoming patient interaction. "When you are trying to reach the same clinical goal, two people might be coming from different perspectives," said Prasad.

After the museum outing, students paired up and discussed a piece of art that they found interesting. Each student then wrote a reflection about what they saw, what emotions they experienced, and how the lessons learned from art apply to their future practice of medicine. Similar to the field of narrative medicine, this type of self-reflection lends itself to greater resiliency, confidence and appreciation for the humanistic aspects of patient care.

In the spring, Bowden will bring students back to the museum for a second course to talk about death and dying through the lens of different cultures. 

P.A. students at Portland Art Museum, studying a Giuseppe Bonito painting