The group of young physicians was looking at an Etruscan sarcophagus from around the third century BCE that showed a reclining married couple in late middle age, softly embracing, covered by a light "sheet" all carved in stone, buried together for eternity. I invited the group to reflect on any possible connections between this artwork and their own clinical work in the hospital.
"Well, yes," one of the interns offered after a brief silence. "Like earlier this week, shortly after learning the news that his wife of 50 years is going to die of cancer, a man came rushing out of her room with tears in his eyes. He ran into me in the hall, and he looked up at me, waiting for me to say the right thing.
"I felt so inadequate I'm only 26 but I was the physician. I was supposed to know what to say to this man."
This halting confession brought sympathetic murmurs and nods of affirmation from surrounding colleagues. The conversation continued for another 20 minutes, with words of advice and encouragement from their attending physician.
As a longtime museum educator, I have had the opportunity to participate in a growing national trend of collaboration between medical schools and art museums, including this poignant and memorable discussion several years ago in Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.
As director of education and academic affairs at the Blanton Museum of Art at The University of Texas at Austin since 2011, I have begun to bring this type of collaboration and sensitization to students in Texas.
Pioneering programs at Yale and Columbia focused on honing the observation skills of medical school students, so relevant to diagnosis, through close looking at art. My own work, developed in partnership with physician-educators affiliated with Harvard Medical School, has expanded the scope of these early programs and uses artworks as a point of departure for building empathetic communication, teamwork and cultural competency.
Through my work with medical professionals, I have come to believe that this way of working in museums has real implications for preventing physician burnout and promoting better patient care.
The art museum environment seems to offer something unique and important to caregivers and medical professionals a respite from the charged hospital environment, with its relentless demands for courage and decisive action, and its high stakes. Removed from the competition and hierarchy, the art museum can serve as a place for medical professionals to share thoughts and feelings about their work, to build on one another's ideas in a search for meaning. They can reflect and recharge in this environment, surrounded by beauty and inspired by expressions of human experience from many times and places.
Educators from the Blanton have worked with groups from UT's Schools of Nursing and Social Work, as well as pre-med students participating in a summer program for the SHAPE (Southwestern-Houston-Austin Professional Education) partnership. We have developed museum workshops for Seton Hospital residents in internal medicine, groups of chaplains, nurses and social workers from Hospice Austin, and we look forward to new partnerships with the Dell Medical School.
Paintings from the Blanton's collection like Claude Vignon's pensive Biblical narrative David with the Head of Goliath, or provocative sculptures like Luis Jimenez's Border Crossing, which speaks to issues surrounding immigration, stimulate important conversations for medical professionals. They nourish empathetic responses which we all hope for from our health care providers and Jimenez raises important questions about who is able to gain access to quality medical care.
Works of art offer interpretive challenges that resonate with the familiar demands of diagnosis. When a group finds difficulty in reaching consensus on a work's meaning, participants have an opportunity to practice confronting the ambiguity that is inherent to complex medical problems to learn about their own reflexive tendencies, listen and consider other strategies.
When removed from familiar settings and placed within a museum context, professional and personal reflections can be shared in conversations that are partly about the works of art and partly about the participants' own experiences. By allowing individuals to move in and out of the realm of the intimate, the museum becomes a safe place for a level of introspection and sharing that the hospital actively blocks.
The Blanton is a place for nonlinear learning, for exploring values and choices, for making metaphors and creating connections. It would also be a great place for interprofessional conversations bringing together students and faculty from the Schools of Nursing, Social Work, Pharmacy and UT Austin's future Dell Medical School. We have a fine team of museum educators ready to collaborate on designing experiences with our rich collections that will help develop the kind of health care professionals we need in our community and state.
Ray Williams is the director of education and academic affairs at the Blanton Museum of Art at The University of Texas at Austin.
This op-ed appeared in the Dallas Morning News on January 12, 2014.
This story is part of our yearlong series "In Pursuit of Health," covering medical news and research happening across the university.