- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 4, 2007


Lessons on drawing and poetry aren’t typical requirements for medical students. But a doctor who teaches at the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) thinks they may help young physicians pay more attention to the little details.

“Observation is a skill,” said Dr. Bill Lydiatt, a specialist in head and neck cancers. “The key here is to learn how to observe.”

Dr. Lydiatt enlisted two professional observers — Scottish artist Mark Gilbert and former U.S. poet laureate Ted Kooser — for a pilot program aimed at teaching students observation skills that usually come from years of medical experience. The three-session seminar included drawing demonstrations and a writing activity that called for students to dissect a green pepper.

The project is “something so different and something [the students] have no experience” with, Dr. Lydiatt said of combining the arts and medicine.

At the first session, Mr. Gilbert stressed that drawing is “a means of discovery.”

“Observation will improve your drawing … drawing will improve your observation,” said the London-based artist, wielding a charcoal pencil while sketching a volunteer posing as a depressed patient.

Subtle details, he said, like the way the patient was slumped in her chair, offered medical clues. “You’re observing and trying to absorb the information,” he said.

At another session, Mr. Kooser, the U.S. poet laureate from 2004 to 2006, explained how to translate observations into words. He passed out green peppers and plastic knives and told his students to write a description of the vegetable for someone who’s never seen one.

“You want to bring in all five senses, if you can,” he said.

Mr. Kooser encouraged his students to write detailed notes about their patients as if the information would be passed to someone else who’d need to know specifics.

He told them about his days as a medical underwriter for an insurance company and how he would read about 50 claims a day, most written by doctors.

“Some were very good with detail,” he said, “and I could see what was happening in the operating room.”

Strengthening inexperienced doctors’ skills of observation to that point was the goal of the project spearheaded by Dr. Lydiatt and medical ethicist Virginia Aita, who also works at UNMC.

The concept came to Dr. Lydiatt last year when Mr. Gilbert visited the university to speak about “Saving Faces,” an exhibition of portraits commissioned by a London doctor, Iain Hutchison, that captured patients before, during and after treatment for facial cancers and deformities.

Mr. Gilbert is working on a similar exhibition for UNMC that features doctors, caregivers and others who work in a medical setting.

Seeing how strongly people reacted to the details in Mr. Gilbert’s paintings and to the carefully chosen words in Mr. Kooser’s poems inspired Dr. Lydiatt to introduce an artist’s observation skills to the medical profession, he said.

Nineteen participants — mostly third-year medical students and a few medical residents — signed up for the seminar.

If their feedback is positive, an observation course will likely be added to UNMC’s curriculum in the fall, Dr. Lydiatt said.

After the second session in late January, students already appeared to be receptive to it.

“The art of drawing pulls a lot of things out,” said Suzanna Tucker, a third-year medical student. “It helps to bring out the detail that you may not normally pay attention to.”

She said she’s been applying Mr. Gilbert’s teachings, drawing the patients she works with.

One of Miss Tucker’s classmates, Andrew Coughlin, said he has become more attuned to little details after hearing Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Kooser speak, and he wonders what he may have missed before.

Observation takes a lot of practice, he said. “It’s not something you can learn in one session or 10 sessions.”

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