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Special course brings the arts to medical education

May 8, 2014

From studying the history of the pencil to the work of the Max Brödel, the father of medical illustration, students at the IU School of Medicine have been introduced to the art of medicine through a special class that speaks to the school's commitment to producing well-rounded physicians.

Tim Yates at desk

Tim Yates, left, instructs Erica Steven, a fourth-year medical student, in a course taught for many years by the IUSM Office of Visual Media. | PHOTO BY JUAN GUZMAN

The month-long elective course, which takes place in the IUSM Office of Visual Media on the first floor of Emerson Hall, has been taught for many years by Tim Yates, a graphic designer and photographer at the Office of Visual Media who retires this month.

“Since medical students are so 'left-brain' oriented, and they have so much information to assimilate, art gives them a chance to rest; it’s a calming activity for so many students,” Yates said. “Not only that, it increases their observational skills immensely, a key skill needed in the field of medicine.”

The course includes lessons in drawing, photography and digital editing. After students are introduced to the basics of each subject, they select a concentration and focus on that area for the remainder of the course. The work produced by students, whose skills often show remarkable improvement over the course of the month, usually go on to be displayed at public events such as the IUSM Evening of the Arts and IUSM Art Exhibit, which take place in April and November, respectively.

“A course like this is not only applicable to art and medicine, but everyday life,” said Erica Steven, a fourth-year medical student currently enrolled in the course. "It allows you to not only have an outlet and stress reliever, but to visualize problems from different perspectives and develop problem-solving skills that will help for years to come."

Tim Yates at computer

Yates also provides instruction in photography and digital editing to students enrolled in the course. | PHOTO BY JUAN GUZMAN

In addition to hands-on skills, IUSM students enrolled in the class receive a crash course in art history and artistic media, ranging from a lesson on the humble pencil, created in the late 1400s, to metalpoint, a technique in which drawings are produced using a metal rod and famously employed by Leonardo Da Vinci. This year, Yates also took students on a field trip to the Eiteljorg Museum in downtown Indianapolis to experience an exhibit featuring Ansel Adams, a pioneering photographer.

As an instructor, Yates maintains high expectations for his students, who often enroll to improve their observational skills. The course is also popular among students seeking to enter medical fields that require an artistic eye, such as reconstructive surgery.

Over the past several years, Yates added that the class has seen rising enrollment among third- and fourth-year medical students, with April's class cohort growing to 26 participants.  

Medical art students

Medical students from a past course work on close-up medical photography. | PHOTO BY TIM YATES

A strong proponent for the role of art in medical education, Yates feels passionately that helping students unlock their creative potential improves their quality of life -- both personally and professionally. For many years, a popular theory held that the human brain is divided into two hemispheres: left and right. The right side was responsible for creativity, emotional expression and musical recognition, and the left side was responsible for logic, numbers, analysis and words. 

According to Yates, the modern educational system’s emphasis on English, science and math can limit individuals' creative capacity, with the "right side" of the brain rarely used after age 10. Ultimately, Yates aims to help students use their whole brain, asserting that the mind is most powerful when it's engaged both creatively and analytically.

"When you’ve got the left and right side of your brain working together it can be extremely valuable for problem-solving, including dealing with complex patient issues and disease diagnosis,” he said. "You begin to notice things others do not; it becomes a valuable and powerful skill. It’s important on many levels for future physicians to be able to utilize both sides of their brain to solve the complex problems they will face in the future."

Before and after

A student self-portrait before and after enrollment in the course. | PHOTO BY TIM YATES

He also pointed to research conducted at Harvard and Yale showing medical students exposed to arts education exhibited increased levels of awareness and observation, speculating that exposure to art instruction beyond elementary school may one day be accepted as a means to reduce medical errors.

During the first day of class, Yates always asks students whether or not they feel their lives were enhanced when they were taught to read as children. The response, of course, is overwhelmingly positive.

"If we learn how to see and observe as future doctors, won't that enhance your life and career as well?" he said.

Steven, who will enter a pediatrics residency program in July at Kosair Children’s Hospital in Louisville, Ky., certainly agrees.

"The course really helps make us more well-rounded and versed physicians," she said. "That's something that benefits everyone, especially our patients."

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