Washington: Taking art courses could help medical students significantly improve their clinical observation and professional development skills, a study suggests.

Observation skills are an essential component of any medical education, aiding doctors during patient exams and in making medical diagnoses, researchers said. Several studies have indicated inadequacies in this area among medical trainees and practicing physicians, they said.

In an effort to explore ways to improve these skills among medical students, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) in the US, turned to the field of visual arts to examine if training in art observation, description, and interpretation could be applied to medical training.

The team saw significant improvement in observational recognition skills among students who took an art observation course and demonstrated that art training alone - without a clinical component - could help teach medical students to become better clinical observers.

"The results of this study are incredibly encouraging, showing that art observation training can improve medical and ophthalmological observational skills," said Jaclyn Gurwin from University of Pennsylvania.

The art sessions were taught by professional art educators using the “Artful Thinking” teaching approach

"We hope that the improved observational abilities from this training will translate to improved clinical effectiveness, empathy and, ultimately, will make better physicians," said Gurwin, lead author of the study published in the journal Ophthalmology.

Thirty-six first-year medical students were randomly assigned to take six, 1.5-hour art observation courses at the Philadelphia Museum of Art or to be a part of a control group that received no formal art observation training.

The art sessions were taught by professional art educators using the "Artful Thinking" teaching approach, which emphasises introspection and observation before interpretation.

Instruction included sessions in front of works of art, group discussions, and training in visual arts vocabulary. The Artful Thinking approach also emphasises lessons that encourage particular kinds of thinking such as creative questioning, reasoning, and perspective taking.

In a post-study questionnaire, students who received the art training indicated that they had already begun to apply the skills used in the course in clinically meaningful ways as first-year medical students. Students who took the art training course also anecdotally demonstrated improvements in empathy and emotional recognition, such as noting emotions and sensations (ie pain or sadness) in works of art.

Test scores did not show a significant difference between the control group and the students who took the art course, researchers said.

PTI