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Students practice the art of observation at Reynolda House

During their study of dermatology, Winston-Salem-based preclinical year students in the PA Class of 2017 spent a recent afternoon at the Reynolda House Museum of American Art using paintings and sculpture to learn more about the art of observation. This innovative session in the Being a PA course has been done for three years now and uses the observation and discussion of art and art principles to help students develop more effective patient observation and physical examination skills.

During the activity, groups of students spent the afternoon viewing and discussing two very different paintings and one sculpture: The Andes of Ecuador (1855) by Frederic Edwin Church, Spring Turning (1936) by Grant Wood, and Seated Female (1976) by Mary Frank. Observation and discussion at each piece of art was facilitated by Associate Professor Gail Curtis, PA-C, MPAS, the course director for Being a PA; Assistant Professor Tanya Gregory, PhD; and Kathleen Hutton, Director of Education at the museum.

Students observed each work of art at length and explored issues such as the parallels between looking at art and performing a physical examination of the skin, the effects of dermatoscopes and magnification on what is seen, the importance of approaching observation and description systematically using the correct vocabulary, and the relationship of observation and memory to accurate documentation in the medical record. Published studies have shown that using art in this type of educational activity can enhance students’ awareness of observational processes and improve their clinical skills.

Reynolda House 1

Students with Gail Curtis at The Andes of Ecuador

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Kathleen Hutton leads students in a discussion of Spring Turning


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