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A Study Training Medical Students, Inspired by Art

Dr. Jaclyn Gurwin is currently a third year Ophthalmology resident at the University of Pennsylvania’s Scheie Eye Institute, and is a graduate of University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. In 2017, Dr. Gurwin published a study entitled “A Randomized Controlled Study of Art Observation Training to Improve Medical Student Ophthalmology Skill” in the journal Ophthalmology. In the study, over a three-month period, first year medical students were taught by professional art educators at the Philadelphia Museum of Art during six, hour and a half art observation sessions. When compared to a control group that received no training, it was found that students who participated in the course demonstrated significant improvements in observational skills and descriptive abilities. Since its publication, Dr. Gurwin’s study has become a key reference for medical schools as more institutions introduce visual analysis courses into their curriculum.

EU: What made you decide to do this study?

Dr. Gurwin: Having witnessed first-hand the impact fine arts has had on my medical training, I knew it could have a powerful effect on other medical trainees as well. Observing and describing are skills that are taught very well in fine arts training, and so it seemed promising to utilize their teachings and apply it to medicine. A fellow med student at the time, Stephanie Davidson, and I joined forces after hearing about other institutions who were merging art training courses with clinical correlate courses to train medical students in observation. Together with Drs. Binenbaum, DeLisser and Revere, we felt that there weren’t may formal studies looking at the effects of this art training, and there were none that attempted to train medical students in art observation alone without the need for a correlate course, and none that looked at ophthalmological observational skills. We were excited to incorporate the teaching strengths of another field into the medical world.

EU: Did anything occur in the study that you weren’t expecting? And if so what?

Dr. Gurwin: The one surprise in the study was that the observational skills of the students that did not receive the art training course actually worsened. We hypothesized that this may have been because the students who did not receive the training put in less effort for the posttest or there is actually a negative effect of medical training that may hinder observational skills.

EU: Can you tell us about your background and/or interest in art? 

Dr. Gurwin: I have been drawing and painting since I was young, and I minored in fine arts at the University of Pennsylvania as an undergraduate. Art has always been a big part of my life, acting as a creative outlet for me.

EU: If you were an artist prior to your medical training, do you still create it? Have you found that your medical experience has changed what you do as an artist? 

Dr. Gurwin: I continue to draw and paint as much as I can even throughout my medical career. I am not sure that my medical experience has changed the artwork I make, but I do think that the creativity and dexterity I have learned through creating artwork has helped my operating and diagnostic skills.

EU: Can you narrow in on a specific circumstance where you realized your art training allowed you to see something that you may have not seen otherwise and/or interpreted differently?

Dr. Gurwin: I can think of many circumstances when examining a patient when my art training has been incredibly helpful. For one, it allows me to pick up on subtleties on a patient’s eye exam and document key findings which help with diagnosis and treatment plan. For example, when looking at a nevus on a patient’s retinal exam, it is important to recognize the characteristics of the nevus (i.e. size, shape, color, depth, location) to know if the nevus needs further work-up for possible melanoma. These characteristics that I am looking for are very similar to characteristics observed in a painting. I also think I have gained dexterity and creativity through drawing and painting, which is invaluable to me in the operating room. When performing reconstructive surgery of an eyelid or periorbital area, after tissue has been destroyed by trauma or removed due to skin cancer, many times it is difficult to find a way to put the pieces back together. I believe that my art background has provided me with creative tools to help problem solve in the operating room to create the best aesthetic and functional result possible.

EU: How did you decide to pursue ophthalmology?

Dr. Gurwin: I decided to pursue ophthalmology for several reasons. For one, eyesight is precious, and I love being given the opportunity to help keep people’s eyes healthy. In addition to this, ophthalmology is an extraordinarily artistic field, which has allowed me to utilize my art background. For one, the surgeries are beautiful, meticulous and delicate. We sometimes use sutures so small you can barely see them with the naked eye. The clinical side of Ophthalmology is also fascinating to me. We can look at the eye and many times, just based on what we see, we can come up with a differential diagnosis and treatment plan.

EU: Do you have any ideas or hopes for further integrating art and medicine?

Dr. Gurwin: I hope to continue to study this connection between art and medicine. I would love to bring this training to residents, fellows and attendings as well because I believe that art observation training could have a profound impact on the physician experience.

Note: A link to Dr. Gurwin’s study can be found on PubMed or read by visiting

View some of Dr. Gurwin’s artwork here.